Friday AM June 22nd, 2007

U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to deepen Galveston Channel…Beaumont shipping group to pay $10 million for Clean Water Act violations…World’s major oil companies replaced reserves at levels below 100 percent for third straight year… An agreement between the Port of Galveston and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to deepen the Galveston Channel has been […]

U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to deepen Galveston Channel…Beaumont shipping group to pay $10 million for Clean Water Act violations…World’s major oil companies replaced reserves at levels below 100 percent for third straight year…

An agreement between the Port of Galveston and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to deepen the Galveston Channel has been signed. Senator John Cornyn joined port officials, federal officials and other members of the Texas Congressional delegation at a Capitol Hill signing ceremony. Senator Cornyn says the agreement will help ensure that the Galveston and Houston ports remain important economic and commercial assets. Cornyn says growing port capacity means increased industry, revenue and jobs for Texas.

New York-based Overseas Shipholding Group must pay $10 million as part of a $37 million criminal settlement for violations of the Clean Water Act. U.S. District Judge Thad Heartfield in Beaumont approved the proposed plea agreement—the largest-ever penalty involving deliberate vessel pollution. The charges involve 12 oil tankers, with OSG admitting it deliberately falsified oil record books on various ships, which require all overboard discharges to be accurately recorded. The company admitting concealing bypass methods used to circumvent pollution prevention equipment on port calls.

A review finds the world’s major oil companies replaced reserves at levels below 100 percent for the third straight year in 2006. Reserve replacements last year, excluding acquisitions and divestitures, were 91 percent. That compares to 92 percent replaced in 2005. Details are in a report by investment bank Bear Stearns. Analysts say a company’s reserves replacement typically should average more than 100 percent over a three-to-five-year period–to indicate growth. The report says: BP was a top performer in 2006, and its project pipeline appears solid, as new developments in Angola and the Gulf of Mexico progress; Irving-based ExxonMobil should replace full production in 2007 with bookings from major projects in Angola, Nigeria, Qatar, Norway and Australia; Houston-based ConocoPhillips has a ten-year average reserves replacement of 95 percent, excluding acquisitions, and reserve additions could lift this year’s level to 100 percent.

Houston-based ConocoPhillips plans to boost its oil exploration efforts in western North Dakota this summer. Phil Frederickson is a vice president for the nation’s number three oil company. He says ConocoPhillips has three drilling rigs working in North Dakota’s Bakken geologic formation now–and the company is planning to bring in another one this summer. North Dakota produces about 119,000 barrels of oil a day, and ConocoPhillips accounts for about a third of the production. Most of the company’s oil comes from the Cedar Hills operating unit in North Dakota’s southwest corner. ConocoPhillips acquired an interest in Cedar Hills when the company bought the Burlington Resources company last year. Frederickson was in Bismarck, North Dakota, Wednesday night to speak at an energy forum. ConocoPhillips plans to hold similar forums in 35 cities this year.

Weatherford International has finalized more of its West Virginia expansion plans. The Houston-based oilfield services company says its Weatherford fracturing technologies subsidiary will open a second office on a 30-acre site near Buckhannon, West Virginia. Spokesman Rick Smith says Weatherford will hire at least 65 people and spend $34 million on land and construction. Weatherford fracturing already plans a similar office in southern West Virginia. It will be located in Holden, in Mingo County. Both offices are part of a $68 million expansion targeting the state’s oil and gas industry. While West Virginia is known for coal, the state has nearly 50,000 natural gas wells and more than 3,500 oil wells. Weatherford and other big oilfield service companies, such as Baker Hughes and Halliburton, have been expanding rapidly in recent years due to the booming oil and gas market. Weatherford, for instance, increased its employee ranks from just over 25,000 to 33,000 from 2005 to 2006.

The Supreme Court has imposed a strict standard for shareholder lawsuits which attempt to recover losses from companies accused of fraud. The ruling will make it harder for groups of investors to file lawsuits alleging they lost money because company officials violated federal securities laws. The court says a lawsuit will survive only if the facts alleged in it are “cogent and compelling” pointing to an intent to deceive investors. The standard will be applied at the beginning of the case. That means suits may be tossed out earlier than before. The ruling came in a shareholders suit against high-tech company Tellabs.

Shareholders of Banco Bilbao Vizcaya Argentia have approved the Spanish company’s pending $9.6 billion acquisition of Compass Bancshares, according to the Houston Business Journal. Compass shareholders and regulators must now approve the deal. Compass is headquartered in Birmingham, Alabama, and has been growing in Texas. After the merger, Compass will be reincorporated as a Texas-based entity. Compass operations will be consolidated under the Spanish conglomerate’s U.S. subsidiary based in The Woodlands.

Houston-based First Capital International has opened an office in Moscow, according to the Houston Business Journal. The technology firm says that places it closer to local customers, as well as near Russian Electronics, a defense contractor with which First Capital recently signed a joint venture.

The number of Americans filing new claims for unemployment benefits rose last week. The Labor Department puts the total number of new claims at 324,000, up 10,000 from the previous week. Analysts had been looking for a decline. With the increase, new claims are at their highest level in two months. Despite the slowdown in the economy, the job market has remained firm so far this year.

A forward-looking gauge of economic momentum has turned higher. The Conference Board’s Index of Leading Economic Indicators rose three-tenths of one percent in May. The index had dropped the month before. Economist Ken Goldstein with the business research group says there are fewer concerns about a weaker economy. He says it appears that the economy ”has weathered the negative impact of the housing slump and the spring run-up in gas prices.”

Concerns that the housing market will be a longer drag on the economy sent long-term mortgage rates lower this week. Freddie Mac says the average for the 30-year fixed-rate loan is 6.69 percent–down five basis points from last week. A year ago, it stood at 6.71 percent. The 15-year mortgage is averaging 6.37 percent this week. Last week, it was 6.43 percent and a year ago the average was 6.36 percent. Freddie Mac Vice President and Chief Economist Frank Nothaft says rates were influenced by May’s decline in housing starts–the first in four months–and a drop in homebuilder optimism to a 16-year low.

An early to mid-stage study on its prospective multiple sclerosis treatment Tovaxin yielded positive results, according to Houston-based Opexa Therapeutics, as reported in the Houston Business Journal. The company says the Phase I/II clinical trial—a one-year extension study involving eight patients—showed a 92 percent reduction in the annual relapse rate of MS. The patients received two treatment doses eight weeks apart and were monitored for 44 weeks.

The new president of American Airlines’ pilots union says the union’s own proposal for a 30.5-percent pay raise next year “is not nearly enough.” Miami-based pilot Lloyd Hill heads the newly elected slate of officers for the Allied Pilots Association. That’s after union members ousted the previous leadership. The newcomers had promised to take a harder line against Fort Worth-based American Airlines–the nation’s largest carrier. Pilots have been unhappy over pay and angry at management. In an interview last night, Hill said he wants the company to succeed. But he says current union leaders had tried too hard to find a middle ground with management instead of representing pilots. Hill defeated incumbent Ralph Hunter by more than a two-to-one margin in a runoff. Hill accused Hunter and other union leaders of becoming too cozy with company management. The first test for the new officers leaders will come quickly. The union is in the early stages of negotiations for a new contract in which it expects large raises.

The widow and son of a Beaumont man are suing the maker of the popular diabetes drug Avandia. The suit filed in federal court in Marshall alleges the drug contributed to the man’s death from a heart attack. Sixty-year-old Larry Alan Stanford died May 21st. That same day a scientific analysis was published in the New England Journal of Medicine saying that Avandia was linked to a greater risk of heart attack and possibly death. His widow, Peggie Stanford, and son, Ryan Stanford, this week sued GlaxosmithKline. Stanford had taken Avandamet, a form of Avandia mixed with another diabetes drug, since early 2005. A spokeswoman for GlaxosmithKline says the company will vigorously defend the medicine. Alice Hunt says the company stands firmly behind the safety of the product.

Prison awaits the last four now-ex-workers of a Swift meatpacking plant in Cactus targeted in an illegal immigration bust. A federal judge in Amarillo sentenced the final defendants of the 53 people arrested in the December 12th raid. Each pleaded guilty to charges related to false identification. Prosecutors say Jesus Gutierrez-Ramos, Manuel Castro-Pablo and Cristino Pablo-Alonzo pleaded guilty to using fraudulently obtained identity documents. Each must serve eight months in prison. Domingo Velasquez-Gutierrez pleaded guilty to the same charge and received a six-month prison term. No charges were filed against Colorado-based Swift.

Starbucks and the Ethiopian government say they will work together to promote three of the African nation’s prized specialty coffees. Starbucks and Ethiopian officials say the licensing, distribution and marketing agreement acknowledges the country’s ownership of three coffee names–Yirgacheffe, Harar and Sdamo–regardless of whether they are trademarked. Officials say the deal will not give Ethiopia any royalty payments. But Ethiopia hopes the agreement will benefit farmers. Last year, Starbucks refused Ethiopia’s request that the company sign a voluntary licensing agreement saying the country owns rights to those coffee names even in countries where they are not trademarked. Starbucks had wanted to help Ethiopia establish geographic certification for the coffee bean names, similar to the designations assigned to Washington apples.

Some farmers say that saving a few cents at the pump with ethanol might cost you extra pennies for milk and meat at the grocery store. Demand for corn needed to make ethanol is soaring–and so are the prices. That means it takes more money to feed and raise cows–a cost many say will eventually be passed on to consumers. Texas is the nation’s leading cattle producer. Cattle raisers are keeping their animals on pasture longer rather than taking them to feedyards. Some mother cows were sold off during recent droughts, which adds up to fewer calves in the market. Falling supply of cattle and rising demand for corn create what feedyard manager Kyle Williams calls a “double whammy.” Jim Gill with the Amarillo-based Texas Cattle Feeders Association says ranchers are now losing as much as $100 per head because of high corn prices. Demand also motivates farmers to plant more acres of corn and fewer acres of forage crops like alfalfa or milo. Forage crops are used to feed dairy crows. Experts say that with decreased supply in these crops—the price of milk will continue to climb.

Texas A&M University students will pay about $10 more per credit hour next semester. University officials say the 5.3 percent raise is smaller than usual–but it outstrips inflation rates by more than two percentage points. A full-time student will pay just under $200 more for tuition when classes start in the fall. Officials say higher state appropriations and fiscal discipline allowed them to avoid the 13 percent increase originally approved.

Your Sunday and daily New York Times will cost more starting next month. The newspaper says Sunday newsstand prices will rise to $4 from $3.50 starting January 15th. For the daily Times, you’ll pay a newsstand price of $1.25–up 25 cents–starting July 16th. Home-delivery rates will rise by three to four percent. The company says the increases will produce $7 to $8 million in additional revenue this year.

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