Monday AM December 11th, 2006

TXU shareholders ask questions about 11 proposed coal-fired power plants…Encysive Pharmaceuticals gets FDA approval for clinical studies on pulmonary hypertension drug…Kraft sells Houston coffee plant… A group of TXU shareholders wants the Dallas-based company to explain plans to build as many as 11 new coal-fired power plants in Texas. Five New York pension funds want […]

TXU shareholders ask questions about 11 proposed coal-fired power plants…Encysive Pharmaceuticals gets FDA approval for clinical studies on pulmonary hypertension drug…Kraft sells Houston coffee plant…

A group of TXU shareholders wants the Dallas-based company to explain plans to build as many as 11 new coal-fired power plants in Texas. Five New York pension funds want TXU to study how tougher greenhouse gas rules could affect the company as it adds up to 9,1000 megawatts of new coal generation, doubling its CO2 emissions. The Connecticutt State Treasurer’s Office wants TXU to analyze potential savings from efficiency measures. And the Benedictine Sisters of Boerne, Texas, want specific goals to reduce CO2 and mercury emissions. TXU, meanwhile, has asked the state’s Office of Administrative Hearings to deny a coalition of Texas cities opposed to the plants, including Houston. And the Environmental Integrity Project last week said a survey shows the majority of Texans are against Governor Rick Perry’s plan to fast track at least 12 new coal-fired power plants. The group’s survey shows only 14 percent favor the approval process. But the governor’s office says the survey questions were written in such a way as to guarantee the outcome that the poll’s backers were seeking.

Encysive Pharmaceuticals has been given permission by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to resume clinical studies on TBC3711, its blood vessel-relaxing drug that could be used to treat pulmonary hypertension. The FDA put testing on hold in March when unusual results were reported during lab testing on rats. The Houston-based company expects the clinical testing will resume in the first quarter of 2007. Encysive expects to hear later this month on its resubmission for Thelin, which recently received market authorization from the European Commission.

Kraft Foods is selling its coffee plant in Houston to Maximus Coffee Group, affiliated with Cadeco Industries. Cadeco’s Carlos de Aldecoa says the sale include the buildings, machinery, equipment, property and inventory.

“And it’s gonna be effective December 31st of this year, when our group will take over all operations, continuing manufacturing and continue to offer employment to all current employees of that facility. It’s really going to be just maybe a different color uniform, different logo on their caps and different, different name on the check, but other than that it’s status quo as far as employment and benefits and pay. Again, we did not buy the brand, we bought the facility, and we’ll continue in a long-term supply agreement and manufacturing agreement with Kraft to continue to package their products with their label at the plant.”

The Port of Houston has become the top-ranked coffee exchange port in the world, based on the number of coffee cargo bags tendered. Houston is home to one of only five coffee warehouses in the United States recognized by the New York Board of Trade.

“I think Houston’s always been a very strong coffee port on the processing side. I mean, there’s several plants in Texas that are very large. It’s represented by groups such as Maxwell House or Kraft, Folger’s–which is Proctor & Gamble in Sherman, Texas–you have Sara Lee, which is also located here in Houston. And the value of having the Exchange Designation was very much needed for Houston. What it’s done, really, it’s increased the awareness of the capacity that’s available for storage and distribution, and now processing in this city of Houston.”

Some 350 Kraft plant employees are being offered jobs with Maximus Coffee Group, and more employees could be added over the next 12 to 24 months.

Hiring in services helped to offset declines in construction and manufacturing last month. The Labor Department says the unemployment rate has risen one-tenth of one percent to 4.5 percent. That’s up slightly from a five-year-low. November payrolls growth is said to have perked up, with employers adding 132,000 jobs. That’s a little better than expected. Wages grew modestly last month. Average hourly earnings were up two-tenths of one percent from the previous month. Over the previous 12 months, wages have risen more than four percent.

The University of Michigan’s mid-December report shows Consumer Sentiment has fallen more than expected. It finds deteriorating expectations of future economic conditions, according to media reports. The Michigan report is released only to subscribers. Those who have seen the report say December’s preliminary Consumer Sentiment Index dropped to 90.2 from November’s final reading of 92.1. Economists surveyed by Dow Jones Newswires had expected the index to be little changed, at 92. The mid-December current conditions index improved to 108.2 from the 106 reported in November. However, the Consumer Expectations Index, which seeks to assess consumers’ longer-term views, fell to 78.6 in December from November’s 83.2.

Homeowners in three states will find it harder to be “in good hands.” Allstate says it wants to control its exposure to areas at risk of hurricanes. So in mid-February it’ll stop writing new homeowner policies in Connecticut. The insurance giant is taking similar steps in New Jersey and Delaware. It earlier announced plans to stop writing policies in some coastal counties in New York. An Allstate official says there’s a dramatic increase in the risk of what he calls a “catastrophic event” occurring in New England. The company is arranging for agents in Connecticut to offer homeowner policies from six other insurers. In 2005, Hurricane Katrina, among other storms, cost Allstate more than $5.5 million.

Dallas-based HomeVestors of America names Houston as the tenth-best market for real estate investing in 2006. The findings are based on the top home buyers in the franchise network famous for its “We Buy Ugly Houses” billboards. Gary, Indiana, was named the top city for real estate investment.

A survey finds that the supply of affordable housing is dwindling. A League of Cities survey finds that about one-third of the nation’s cities have less affordable housing than they had a year ago. Four out of five housing directors in more than 1,000 U.S. cities also said the value of homes and rental costs have increased significantly. That puts severe financial strain on families. One-third of the housing officials also reported predatory lending was increasing, and more than half indicated it was a problem in their cities. League leaders–meeting in Reno, Nevada–say significant challenges include the increasing number of foreclosures and deteriorating housing stock. The nonprofit league of cities, based in Washington, describes itself as a resource and advocate for more than 18,000 cities, towns and villages.

American Airlines is tinkering with its bid for new service to China. The carrier is proposing that flights from Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport would stop in Chicago–en route to Beijing. Fort Worth-based American said it’s asked to amend its plan now pending before the U.S. Transportation Department. Return flights would operate directly from Beijing to DFW. American is one of several carriers that are competing to win seven new weekly round-trip slots between the U.S and China.

Federal regulators could be poised to move the Palo Verde nuclear generating station west of Phoenix into their most stringent oversight category. That’s after Nuclear Regulatory Commission inspectors found yet another problem with an emergency backup system. The plant supplies electricity to about four million customers in Texas, as well as Arizona, New Mexico and California. Partners in the plant are El Paso Electric, as well as Arizona Public Service Company, Arizona’s Salt River Project, Southern California Edison, Public Service Company of New Mexico, Southern California Public Power Authority and the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power. A late September plant inspection found that an emergency diesel generator had been inoperative for most of the month. One of the most serious findings recently at the plant was the discovery in 2004 that a large pipe meant to flood the reactors with water in an emergency had been left dry for years. Regulators also have recently discovered that an improper chemical mix in pipes in the emergency cooling system led to corrosion that went undetected for years. The NRC and Palo Verde officials will meet January 16th in Arlington to discuss the agency’s report on the faulty generator and the improper chemical mix.

Undocumented immigrants produced $1.58 billion in state fees and taxes in 2005, but local governments shouldered $1.44 billion in uncompensated health care costs and law enforcement expenditures not covered by the state. Texas Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn says overall tax revenue from illegal immigrants exceeded the money received from state services, such as education. The report says the absence of an estimated 1.4 million undocumented workers in Texas would have resulted in a loss to the Gross State Product of $17.7 billion. GSP includes wages and money circulated into the economy.

The University of Texas is demolishing the 80-year-old north end zone section of Darrell K. Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium. The crews are clearing a place for new seating and academic space in a $176 million renovation project. Crews used heavy machinery to rip out brick and a wrecking ball to smash concrete in the north end zone seating, which was added to the stadium in 1926. The facility was dedicated Texas Memorial Stadium in 1924 to World War I veterans. Plans call for construction of a multipurpose area with a veteran’s memorial plaza, an academic center and street-level food and retail areas. With temporary seating in the south end zone for the 2006 season, stadium capacity was about 85,000. Seating capacity will surpass 90,000 once the new, permanent seating in the north end zone is finished. School officials said the lower level should be finished in time for the 2007 season and the entire project should be completed before the 2008 season.

This is the time of year when companies have office parties–and event that can give employers a severe case of the jitters. Stories of excessive drinking, sexual advances, off-color and inappropriate jokes, vulgar language, and even arguments and fistfights are legion. In some case they can lead to lawsuits, costing hundreds of thousands of dollars in attorney fees. Labor lawyer Jim Hendricks, partner with the Chicago office of Fisher and Phillips, says there are a lot of things a smart boss can do to minimize the danger of things getting out of hand. Among them he says is to remind employees that normal work rules and standards apply to parties and to advise employees to drink responsibly. He also advises against hanging mistletoe.

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