Friday AM September 28th, 2007

Witness tells of surcharge payment database in Oscar Wyatt’s Oil-for-Food trial…Reports say Texas could meet growing power needs–without new power plants–by encouraging energy efficiency… An Iraqi oil official testified in Oscar Wyatt, Jr.’s, fraud and conspiracy trial in New York, explaining a database he said recorded surcharge payments made on behalf of the Houston oil […]

Witness tells of surcharge payment database in Oscar Wyatt’s Oil-for-Food trial…Reports say Texas could meet growing power needs–without new power plants–by encouraging energy efficiency…

An Iraqi oil official testified in Oscar Wyatt, Jr.’s, fraud and conspiracy trial in New York, explaining a database he said recorded surcharge payments made on behalf of the Houston oil company founded by Wyatt, according to the Houston Chronicle. The Houston oilman is accused of funneling millions of dollars in illegal kickbacks to the Iraqi government to purchase oil under the United Nations Oil-for-Food program, which was intended to provide for Iraq’s impoverished population without benefiting the regime of Saddam Hussein. Prosecutors allege Wyatt used front companies to deposit money into an account that paid the demanded kickbacks. His defense lawyers don’t dispute the payments, but they say Wyatt had no ownership stake or control in the firms. In exchange for his testimony, the former Iraqi oil official has been granted permission to relocate his family to the United States and has been given more than $150,000 for relocation costs.

New reports commissioned by Environmental Defense and produced by the Washington-based American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy say Texas could meet its growing electric power needs–without new power plants. The reports say the state could create 38,300 new jobs over the next 15 year by encouraging energy efficiency and onsite renewable energy measures. The report says adopting the council’s recommendations would net 11,000 jobs in the Houston area over the next 15 years. One of the reports focuses on the energy-saving potential of the Houston-Galveston metropolitan area, which faces challenges in reducing air pollution. The reports recommend new building standards for homes and commercial buildings and upgrades of existing government buildings, as well as encouraging homeowner energy efficiency.

The Commerce Department reports the economy was bounding along at a healthy pace this spring–but that was before the credit crisis seeped onto the economic scene. During the April-to-June quarter, the economy sprung ahead 3.8 percent. It’s slightly below the previously estimated four percent growth rate, but still robust enough to be the strongest showing in just over a year. The quarter before clocked in with an anemic 0.6 percent growth rate. The increase in the rate could be fleeting though, thanks to the deepening housing slump and the credit crunch. Most economists expect this quarter, which ends on Sunday, to have a much gloomier reading.

Fewer people signed up for unemployment benefits last week, raising a hopeful sign that the recent weakness in the jobs market won’t be long lasting. The Labor Department reports that new applications filed for jobless benefits dropped by a sharp 15,000 to 298,000 last week. That was a much better showing than economists were expecting. They were forecasting claims to rise. In early September, the department reported that the economy lost jobs for the first time in four years. Economists predict a rebound in job creation for September. That report is due out next week.

It’s a rare compromise between President Bush and the Democratic Congress. Bush has signed legislation designed to make college more affordable for students from poor and middle-class families. The law boosts the maximum Pell grant, given to the poorest college students, by more than $1,000 by 2012. Bush says “Pell grants send an important message to students in need,” that if they work hard and stay in school, the federal government will stand with them. The legislation also slashes interest rates by half on federally backed student loans over the next four years. Boosting college aid was one of a half-dozen domestic priorities Democrats set when they took control of Congress this year. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi says Democrats have delivered on their promise to make college more affordable.

The 60th Executive Women’s International Leadership Conference is underway at the Hilton Americas-Downtown. Some 800 attendees are undergoing management and leadership training. Topics covered include time management, work/life balance, email control, office organization, stress reduction, information overload and concentration.

Houston electronic device maker Innoventions has received a European patent for its RotoView technology, according to the Houston Business Journal. The software enables users to tip a mobile electronic device back and forth to adjust the screen to see beyond the virtual boundaries of the display. The company already has two U.S. patents.

The University of Texas has been awarded a ten-year contract with the U.S. Navy that could pay nearly $1 billion for development of technologies including sonar equipment. The money is not guaranteed, but it offers the chance for the university’s applied research laboratories to earn up to $928 million. The research unit’s previous Navy contract lasted five years and totaled $302 million. David Sivillo, a senior official of the Navy’s Naval Sea Systems Command, says the labs have “been doing great work.” The new contract began in April, but wasn’t announced publicly until UT President William Powers, Jr., mentioned it in a recent speech. The university established the applied research laboratories in 1946. With more than 300 scientists and engineers, it has the largest budget and staff of the more than 200 research units at the school.

Zale Corporation says it’s reached a deal to sell its 70-store Bailey Banks & Biddle specialty jewelry division to Finlay Fine Jewelry Corporation. A statement issued by Irving-based Zale says New York-based Finlay agrees to pay $200 million for the chain. The sale is subject to closing adjustments and other conditions, but Zale says it expects to deal to be complete by the Christmas holiday shopping season. Zale Chief Executive Betsy Burton says the sale is part of Zale’s strategy to tighten its focus on its core business and improve returns to shareholders. Finlay Enterprises Chairman and CEO Arthur Reiner says the acquisition will almost triple the number of Finlay’s stand-alone retail stores and expands its presence in the luxury end of the market. Bailey Banks & Biddle was founded in 1832 in Philadelphia.

Dallas-based Energy Transfer Partners says the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission has given it until October 15th to show it didn’t violate market rules by flooding Houston with natural gas after Hurricane Rita in September 2005, according to the Houston Chronicle. The firm faces repayment of $70.1 million in profit, plus interest, and $97.5 million in civil penalties. Two gas producers are pursing damage claims for the alleged price manipulation. The U.S. Commodities Futures Trading Commission alleged this summer that Energy Transfer Partners anticipate a drop in gas demand in Houston after Rita, stockpiled it and sold it after the storm made landfall, in an attempt to reduce prices.

Houston-based ConocoPhillips and Illinois-based Archer Daniels Midland are joining together to develop renewable transportation fuels for biomass, which uses living and recently dead biological material as fuel. The companies say they will research and commercialize two components of a next-generation biofuel production process–the conversion of biomass from crops or wood into fuel and refining biocrude to produce transportation fuel.

Ultra Petroleum has sold Sino-American Energy to SPC E&P in China, in a $223 million stock transaction, according to the Houston Business Journal. The Houston firm plans to concentrate on its Wyoming assets.

Retail energy provider SUEZ Energy North America has established a new division focused on renewable energy development. This follows the Houston firm’s acquisition of the Canadian wind power development company Ventus Energy late last week. Ventus has 25 wind energy development projects in six provinces, with close to 2,000 megawatts of electricity generation in various stages of development..

Arby’s plans to open six new locations in Houston as it expands nationwide, according to the Houston Business Journal. Atlanta-based Arby’s has signed agreements to open 35 new outlets in Texas and ten other states.

A major shareholder in AMR Corporation wants the owner of American Airlines to boost its stock price by spinning off its frequent-flier program and other businesses. FL Group is an investment fund based in Iceland. It says the Aadvantage frequent-flier program is worth $6 billion, and that a sale could produce a net gain of $4 billion for Fort Worth-based AMR. The stock market values all of AMR at about $51.2 billion. The fund’s chief executive, Hannes Smarason, wrote to AMR directors on Tuesday to suggest the spinoff. FL Group says it has an 8.25 percent stake in AMR, which owns the biggest U.S. air carrier. AMR said it values input from shareholders but doesn’t comment on discussions with shareholders or future plans.

Houston Rockets center Yao Ming is number 89 in the first BusinessWeek “Power 100” of the most powerful sports figures. NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell tops the list. The selections were made by a 21-person panel based on how an individual rates against peers, money controlled, influence generated and length of legacy.

A 500-megawatt Montana wind farm project shelved after running into opposition from environmentalists will be revived as a 50-megawatt project. This is according to the chief executive behind the project proposed for north of Glasgow, Montana. Gary Evans is chief executive of Greenhunter Energy of Grapevine. He says his company decided to return to Valley County, Montana, with a pared-down project. That’s after local officials lobbied aggressively to have the wind farm restored. The wind farm was suspended earlier this year after several environmental groups lined up against it, over concerns that the project’s 400-foot-tall turbines would loom over an adjacent wilderness area. Evans says the company cut the project to ten percent of its original goal, from 500 megawatts to 50 megawatts. He says the turbines for the smaller facility will be about 10 miles away from the 60,000-acre Bitter Creek Wilderness study area.

Despite objections from nuclear energy opponents, the proposed expansion of a southeast Texas nuclear power plant has gotten the thumbs up from many locals, who say the project will be an economic boon. Richard Knapik, the mayor of Bay City, said Tuesday’s announcement that the owners of a nearby nuclear power plant want to double its size could pump as much as $6 billion into the local economy. Power producer NRG Energy–one of the owners of the nuclear power station–on Tuesday submitted the nation’s first application for a new nuclear reactor in nearly 30 years. The New Jersey company has applied to the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission to build two more reactors at the Texas site, where two existing reactors have produced energy since the late 1980s. The 12,200-acre site in Matagorda County was originally designed to accommodate four reactors. But the approval process is expected to be lengthy and construction expensive. NRG has said it could be seven or eight years before the new units are producing power.

The Community Job Fair is set for today at the Wheeler Baptist Church Community Life Center on Wheeler. Representatives from UPS, Metro, City of Houston, Texas Workforce Commission, Washington Mutual Bank, Hilton Americas, First Convenience Bank, HEB, Fiesta, Randalls and other employers will be there.

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