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Monday AM May 14th, 2007

Million-dollar commitment made to support state’s bid for FutureGen…Ports of Houston and Galveston sign agreement to develop master plan for container handling facility on Pelican Island…Greater Houston Convention and Visitors Bureau launches celebrity-based campaign called “My Houston” to celebrate tourism… TXU Corporation and Texas Energy Future Holdings Limited Partnership have made a $1 million commitment […]

Million-dollar commitment made to support state’s bid for FutureGen…Ports of Houston and Galveston sign agreement to develop master plan for container handling facility on Pelican Island…Greater Houston Convention and Visitors Bureau launches celebrity-based campaign called “My Houston” to celebrate tourism…

TXU Corporation and Texas Energy Future Holdings Limited Partnership have made a $1 million commitment to support the state’s bid for the FutureGen power plant. The money would be used to purchase rights to inject carbon dioxide near the proposed Jewett FutureGen site. U.S. Senator John Cornyn of Texas referred to the project in a stop in Houston last week, talking about the need for Congress to address the rising cost of gasoline and the need to develop alternative energy sources.

“And we need to continue to do research into things like clean coal-burning technology. There’s a billion-dollar investment that the federal government is making in something called FutureGen, to figure out how can we use this 300-year supply of coal, which we have (a) plentiful supply of in this country, but use it in a clean way that provides the energy needs for our economy. (It) allows us to continue to grow and create jobs, but at the same time, preserve the clean air that we all want.”

The FutureGen Alliance is a non-profit consortium of companies supporting the U.S. Department of Energy project, to create the world’s first near-zero-emissions fossil fuel power plant. The project site is scheduled to be selected this fall.

The ports of Houston and Galveston have signed an agreement to develop a master plan for a container handling facility on Pelican Island. Development of the container facility won’t start until the Port of Houston Authority finishes construction of its Bayport container terminal, and that’s not expected until 2015. The Port of Houston paid $6.1 million for acreage on Pelican Island, north of Galveston, and the Port of Galveston also has waterfront acreage on the island.

Houston’s office market absorbed more than two million square feet in the first quarter—the second time in 12 months, according to O’Connor & Associates. The Houston consultant’s Office Performance Update says the strongest activity is in the Park 10 sector, followed by Central Business District and the Westchase sector. The report says demand for property has led to increased prices—the seventh consecutive increase for rental rates. O’Connor says the office market is being aided by a strong economy and a healthy job market.

Through May 20th, cities in the United States are celebrating the impact that tourism has on local economies. The Greater Houston Convention & Visitors Bureau has launched a celebrity-based campaign called “My Houston” to help residents celebrate their city. Yao Ming, George and Barbara Bush and Dr. Denton Cooley are taking part. The bureau says 31 million people visit Houston annually, with some 6.5 million from Mexico. Visitors spend an average of $9.3 billion per year, and travel directly generates about 117,000 jobs in Houston. Houston hosted 309 conventions in 2006, drawing almost a million delegates to the city with an economic impact of more than $969 million, based on attendance.

Houston-based Halliburtonhas opened its first training center in Russia, according to the Houston Business Journal. The Tyumen center is being developed in partnership with the Tyumen State Oil and Gas University. It’s Halliburton’s 12th training center worldwide. This center will develop skills of employees in the Europe/Eurasia region.

The Labor Department’s producer price index rose seven-tenths of one percent last month, reflecting the increased wholesale costs of food and energy. That’s down from the one-percent rise seen the month before. The core rate, which excludes food and energy, was unchanged for a second straight month, below expectations. That would be good news for the Federal Reserve, which has continued to express concern about underlying inflation pressure as it has held interest rates steady for nearly a year. The biggest culprit once again was gasoline prices, up more than eight percent at the wholesale level last month.

The government says business inventories declined one-tenth of one percent in March, the biggest drop in nearly two years. Supplies on shelves and backlots had bulged as the economy has cooled. The decline reported by the Commerce Department was led by drop in stockpiles held by retailers. The cutback came as retailers tried to get control of their stockpile in the face of a lower demand.

The government confirms what major retail chains said that April was a poor month for sales. The Commerce Department says retail sales fell two-tenths of one percent. Analysts had been looking for an increase. Excluding the auto sector, sales were flat. That number also was below expectations. Retail chains reported their April numbers last week and they were generally worse than expected. Among them, Wal-Mart reported the weakest performance since the world’s largest retailer began publishing monthly sales in 1980.

Consumer confidence appears stuck in a rut, according to the latest Ipsos survey. The RBC cash index clocked in at 87.1 for May, not much above April’s reading, which was a six-month low. Economist Richard Yamarone at Argus Research notes that while employment is mostly stable, there are many uncertainties on the horizon. Consumers worry about higher energy prices and the continuing housing slump. Yamarone says it’s “fear of the unknowns that is coloring peoples’ feelings.” Those fears were a factor in the big drop in peoples’ feelings about how the economy and their own finances will fare over the next six months. That measure of expectations fell to a nine-month-low.

The U.S. House last week gave a go-ahead to construction of a vast bio-containment lab that a dozen states are competing to host. Authorization of the lab is included in an almost $40 billion Homeland Security Authorization Act, which approves programs for the Homeland Security Department. Funding for the programs will come from a separate Homeland Security appropriations bill. The Senate has not yet considered its version of the bill. The 500,000-plus-square-foot lab would host research on deadly germs that could be used in bioterrorism and diseases that can pass from animal to human. Construction is expected to cost about $450 million. States competing for the lab are Texas, California, Georgia, Kansas, Oklahoma, Maryland, Mississippi, Missouri, North Carolina and Wisconsin. Kentucky and Tennessee are working together for one site in Kentucky. The Texas bids include three sites in San Antonio and one in the Bryan-College Station area.

Federal antitrust authorities have approved U.S. Steel’s planned acquisition of Dallas-based Lone Star Technologies. Lone Star makes welded pipe used in oil fields. The $2.1 billion cash deal was announced in March. The deal is subject to Lone Star shareholder approval. The move will make Pittsburgh-based U.S. Steel the largest producer of tubular steel in North America. The government has finished its review of the terms of the sale and ended a waiting period on the transaction. Details are in a federal trade commission notice filed late last week.

A new crude oil pipeline being installed through Wisconsin is not being done without complaints. An Associated Press review of documents filed with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources show some landowners are upset with Enbridge Energy. Some complain Houston-based Enbridge isn’t being fair on how it’s compensating property owners along the pipeline route. But Enbridge spokesman Dave Henderson says the company is doing all it can to keep landowners happy. He says hundreds along the pipeline’s route have reached agreements that give them money for land that’s temporarily needed to install the pipeline. It expects to have the $1 billion project finished this year and oil flowing early next year.

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