Wednesday AM December 20th, 2006

Chain store index predicts busy Saturday shopping day…ConocoPhillips begins producing renewable diesel fuel at Cork, Ireland, refinery…El Paso Corporation subsidiary and DKRW Energy granted environmental permits for developing LNG facility in Sonora, Mexico… It looks like it’ll be up to the last-minute shoppers to decide whether or not stores meet their monthly sales goals. The […]

Chain store index predicts busy Saturday shopping day…ConocoPhillips begins producing renewable diesel fuel at Cork, Ireland, refinery…El Paso Corporation subsidiary and DKRW Energy granted environmental permits for developing LNG facility in Sonora, Mexico…

It looks like it’ll be up to the last-minute shoppers to decide whether or not stores meet their monthly sales goals. The weekly Chain Store Index from the International Council of Shopping Centers finds this coming Saturday to be the busiest shopping day for stores. The council’s chief economist expects consumers to be “out in force” in the coming days to finish their holiday buying. Despite the procrastination, he still expects December same-store growth to be between two and a-half and 3.5 percent higher.

The Labor Department says wholesale prices rose two percent in November, the biggest increase in more than three decades–the result of higher prices for gasoline and other items. The advance in the producer price index was the biggest since a similar increase in November of 1974. While economists had been expecting a rebound in the index following two months of big declines. However, the jump was four times bigger than the half-percent increase they had forecast. Even when the volatile energy and food prices are excluded, core inflation posted a 1.3 percent advance–the biggest in 26 years. Just last week, the government reported consumer prices for November were unchanged.

New home construction rose last month, rebounding partially from October’s sharp drop. The Commerce Department says housing starts shot up 6.7 percent to an annual rate of nearly 1.59 million houses. Construction had plunged by 13.7 percent the month before. In the 12 months ending in November, housing construction is down 25.5 percent. Meanwhile, building permits, an indication of developers plans during the coming months, were down three percent–declining for a tenth straight month.

Houston-based ConocoPhillips has started commercial production of renewable diesel fuel at its Cork, Ireland, refinery, using soybean and vegetable oils. The process can also be used to convert animal fats and oils to renewable diesel fuel. The fuel is produced using existing equipment at the refinery and is blended and transported with petroleum-based diesel.

TEPPCO Partners has signed an agreement with Motiva Enterprises to construct and operate a new storage facility to support its refinery expansion in Port Arthur. The Houston-based company will construct a 5.4 million barrel refined products storage facility for gasoline and distillates, including 20 storage tanks, five 3.5-mile pipelines and new pumping capacity. The partnership will also construct an 11-mile, 20-inch pipeline to connect the new storage facility in Port Arthur to a terminal in Beaumont.

A subsidiary of El Paso Corporation and DKRW Energy has been granted three key environmental permits for developing a liquified natural gas facility in Sonora, Mexico. The project will include an LNG receipt, storage and regasification facility and a pipeline. Both Houston companies are working with USB Securities to identify potential suppliers.

The Texas Attorney General’s Office has concluded a year-long investigation and legal action against Sony BMG Music Entertainment, obtaining an agreed final judgment providing restitution for millions of compact discs containing harmful software not disclosed to consumers. Sony is now prohibited from selling CDs containing XCP, MediaMax or any other content-protection software that hides or cloaks its software files. Software embedded on some CDs could damage computers and create security vulnerabilities. In 2005, Sony distributed millions of copies of 52 titles utilizing new copyright protection technology.

New stats from the federal government show about 10,000 fewer people worked for U.S. carriers in October, compared to a year earlier. The top three–American, United and Delta–all lost workers. But there were jobs to be had with many low-cost airlines. Southwest leads the pack there, but JetBlue and AirTran are among those which also added employees in October. About 403,000 people work for U.S. airlines, according to the Transportation Department.

Houston-based oilfield services provider Allis-Chalmers Energy has completed its acquisition of Louisiana-based Oil & Gas Rental Services. Allis-Chalmers is paying $291 million cash and 3.2 million shares of stock. Allis-Chalmers provides services and equipment to oil and natural gas exploration and production companies.

Houston-based Direct Energy has signed a 15-year power purchase agreement with Houston-based Horizon Wind Energy’s Lone Star Wind Farm, according to the Houston Business Journal. Direct Energy will purchase all energy output and Renewable energy Credits from Horizon’s new 20-megawatt Lone Star Wind project under construction 15 miles northeast of Abilene. The wind farm is scheduled to begin operations in the spring of 2007.

A plastics manufacturer plans to shutter its production and distribution plant in El Paso, meaning about 150 people will lose their jobs. Chicago-based housewares company Home Products International announced that the plant will close by the end of February. The company says that the manufacturing and distribution operations will be consolidated at the Chicago plant. It’s the second El Paso plant closure plan announced recently. Alcoa has also outlined plans to shut down its plastics plant in March. About 100 jobs will be lost in the Alcoa closing.

A federal judge has thrown out indictments against eight people charged with fraudulently taking more than 5,600 Southwest Airlines tickets. The ruling by U.S. District Judge Orlando Garcia leaves just two people–ex-Bexar County court bailiff James Jackson and his wife, Althea Jackson–charged in the case. Garcia ruled that the law used to charge the eight defendants does not apply to the complimentary tickets allegedly taken by the defendants. It was originally created in the 1980s to target credit card fraud. The airline tickets were already used courtesy tickets given to inconvenienced southwest customers. Prosecutors say the defendants sold them for cash. Garcia’s ruling came on motions for dismissal from the eight defendants. The Jacksons did not file a similar motion, but their attorney said that if the theory of prosecution is wrong for the others arrested, it should also apply to the Jacksons. A spokesman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office says prosecutors are reviewing the case.

Plainfield, Indiana-based cell phone distributor BrightPoint is acquiring most of the U.S. operations and Miami-based Latin American business of CellStar Corporation for $88 million in cash. CellStar is based in Carrollton, Texas. BrightPoint says the deal will bolster its ability to provide wireless distribution and logistic services to Latin American customers and suppliers. The proposed transaction excludes CellStar’s Mexico and Chile operations and other businesses. BrightPoint Chairman and CEO Robert Laikin says the deal with CellStar is part of the company’s long-term growth strategy.

A charity raided by federal agents earlier this year has won a lucrative military contract to make chemical protective suits. That’s what the Defense Department has announced. The Defense Supply Center has ordered 60,000 chemical suits from ReadyOne Industries, an El Paso charity that was once a primary supplier of the chemical warfare suits for the military. Joe Wardy–ReadyOne’s CEO–said additional orders could result in about 650,000 suits being made, which would make the contract worth about $150 million. ReadyOne was formerly known as the Nation Center for the Employment of the Disabled. It was raided by the FBI and other federal agencies as part of a probe of the charity its former head, Robert E. “Bob” Jones. The government contracts were suspended around the same time. There were allegations that the company did not meet contract requirements that at least 75 percent of workers filling the orders be severely disabled or blind. When Wardy took over after Jones resigned in March, he vowed to restore the charity’s reputation and win back the federal contracts.

The University of Texas at Tyler will provide free tuition for students whose families make less than $25,000 annually. The program will begin in the fall 2007 semester. Recipients must be first-time freshmen, Texas residents, meet UT-Tyler admission requirements, complete all required financial aid documents and enroll in a minimum course load of 12 hours per semester. They must also complete at least 30 credit hours each academic year with a cumulative grade point average of 2.0 or higher. UT-Tyler President Rod Mabry says goal of the “pathway to success” program is to open the door for students who’ve been lost in the system. The University of Texas at San Antonio announced a similar program last week.

AAA Texas is again offering its free ride and towing service to drivers who’ve had too much to drink. The get-you-home-safely offer is for the upcoming holiday periods: starting Friday, December 22nd, through New Year’s Day. There are some restrictions. AAA Texas says the first ten miles are free. Any destination farther than that will cost the driver a towing-related rate. The destination is limited to where the driver lives. You are not allowed to register in advance for the Tipsy Tow program, which is in its 20th year. People wanting to use the service should call: 1-800-AAA-HELP.

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