Tuesday AM January 15th, 2008

Trans-Texas Corridor town hall meetings begin…Greater Houston Partnership reaches early goals of Opportunity Houston campaign to fund Strategic Plan…Kazakhstan to double stake in Caspian Sea oil field being developed by international energy giants… The biggest construction project ever attempted in Texas comes under public debate beginning Tuesday. That’s when state transportation officials head to Texarkana […]

Trans-Texas Corridor town hall meetings begin…Greater Houston Partnership reaches early goals of Opportunity Houston campaign to fund Strategic Plan…Kazakhstan to double stake in Caspian Sea oil field being developed by international energy giants…

The biggest construction project ever attempted in Texas comes under public debate beginning Tuesday. That’s when state transportation officials head to Texarkana for the first of 11 town hall meetings on the Trans-Texas Corridor. That’s a proposed 4,000-mile network of superhighway toll roads. The TTC initiated six years ago by Governor Rick Perry has rankled opponents. They characterize the project as the largest government grab of private property in state history and an unneeded and improper expansion of toll roads. But Perry and transportation officials defend the project as needed to address future traffic concerns fueled by population growth in one of the nation’s fastest-growing states. They further cite a need amid insufficient road revenues from the state gasoline tax and the federal government. The TTC would crisscross the state, for the most part roughly paralleling existing interstate highways. It would consist of up to quarter-mile-wide ribbons of separate highways for cars and trucks, rail line and pipeline and utility lines. Cost of the project has been estimated at approaching $200 billion and take as long as 50 years to complete.

The Greater Houston Partnership says it has reached the primary goals of its strategic plan. “Opportunity Houston” is designed to help grow jobs in the region by 600,000, increase capital investment by $60 billion and expand foreign trade by $120 billion by the end of 2015.  Jeff Moseley is president and CEO of the Partnership.

“Its objectives focus very simply on generating quality leads, which we would then distribute to ten-county, 36 economic development professionals, and by doing so, go after and pursue high-paying jobs. And like the Strategic Plan itself, Opportunity Houston is extremely ambitious. We knew that when we began it. Other regions envy our dramatic level of business support that we’ve enjoyed. And I’m very pleased today to announce that this grand vision has successfully complete Phase One. Opportunity Houston has surpassed the $30 million milestone mark.”

Moseley says the initial money raised by “Opportunity Houston” will enable the Greater Houston Partnership to continue its Strategic Plan objectives.

“We believe that to be world class, this region should grow 600,000 jobs, that capital investment should grow by $60 billion and foreign trade should be expanded by $120 billion. This is by the end of 2015. And so we’re only two years into our strategic plan. I can tell you without qualification that we’re on the right path. 2007, clearly a banner yearâ€â€we do know that we’ve had over 60,000 jobs created in the region. And as the data comes in, we expect to see that capital investment has grown by at least $6 billion. And through out support, the Port of Houston and the Houston Airport System, foreign trade for this region has increased by an amazing $15.2 billion.”

The campaign money is funded through public and private investments by businesses, organizations and individuals who share a common goal of promoting positive economic development and job creation in the ten-county region.

Finland-based Wartsila, which has 150 workers in Houston, has signed a contract with South Texas Electric Cooperative for a 202.5 megawatt gas-fired power plant for about $120 million. The plant will be in Pearsall, 50 miles southwest of San Antonio. The first stage of 75 megawatts will be online by the end of 2009 and the rest by the end of 2010.

Horizon Wind Energy has received a $300 million equity investment from GE Energy Financial Services in four of its wind farms, according to the Houston Business Journal. Houston wind developer Horizon is a subsidiary of a Portuguese company. Construction on three of the four wind farms is set for completion in January, with the fourth in by mid-year.

Kazakhstan’s national oil company says it’ll double its stake in a massive Caspian Sea oil field being developed by international energy giants. That’s after a sharp increase in costs and growing pressure from a dissatisfied Kazakh government. Kazmunaigaz will get a 16.8-percent share in the Kashagan Project after the international consortium led by Italy’s ENI Spa agreed to the increase. Other companies in the consortium include Irving-based ExxonMobil, along with Royal Dutch Shell and Total of France. The offshore field lies beneath the northern part of the Caspian Sea. Its discovery in 2000 was one of the largest in decades, with an estimated 37 billion barrels of oil. However, the undersea oil has been difficult to tap, leading to rising costs and delays in the startup and production. Kazakhstan downgraded its long-term oil output forecast to 2.6 million barrels a day by 2015 from three million. That’s because of delays with development of Caspian sea fields, including Kashagan.

The oil ministry says Iraq’s average oil output rose again in December, marking a roughly 30 percent increase since the start of 2007. According to figures released by the state oil marketing company, Iraq’s average output last month reached almost 2.5 million barrels per day, compared to 1.9 million barrels in January of 2007. Iraq aims to boost production to three million barrels per day by the end of 2008. Iraq holds the world’s third-largest crude oil reserves with an estimated 115 billion barrels. But it’s in dire need of expertise from international oil companies. The government has set a January 31st deadline for international oil firms to register to compete for tenders to help develop a number of oil and gas fields.

Bahrain-based Gulf Air has ordered 16 of Boeing’s new 787 Dreamliners valued at around $4 billion, with an option for eight more. An airline official says the deal is worth $4 billion at list prices but would rise to $6 billion if options are included. The struggling carrier said in November at the Dubai Air Show that it was planning to renew its entire fleet and looking to order up to 35 planes. The official says Gulf Air is also in talks with airbus for the A320 narrow-body planes. The carrier plans to finance the aircraft purchases partially through the government and partially through financial institutions. Gulf Air, first launched as a pan-Arab Gulf carrier in 1950, is reeling from the successive withdrawals of Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Oman from its charter. Bahrain is the last remaining state shareholder.

An appeals court has overturned a $400,000 jury award to a Portuguese-born passenger who sued American Airlines. The 40-year-old passenger claimed he was removed from a flight because of racial discrimination. The U.S. Court of Appeals in Boston this week vacated the 2007 award to John Cerqueira. Under the Air Transportation Security Act, carriers are permitted to turn away passengers who might be “inimical to safety.” Cerqueira is a naturalized U.S. citizen. He was removed from the December 2003 flight to Fort Lauderdale, Florida, along with two Israeli men seated in his row. Investigators later concluded the men weren’t a security threat, but the airline did not allow them to re-board. Cerqueira was described as hostile by one flight attendant. An attorney for Cerqueira says he may appeal. Airline attorney Michael Fitzhugh declined comment.

The University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center and St. Luke’s Episcopal Hospital will host the first Neuroscience Frontiers Conference in Dubai, United Arab Emirates on January 21st. It’s a forum for exchanging ideas about the latest neuroscience developments and therapies, to stimulate more research collaboration to benefit patients with brain tumors and cerebrovascular disease.

Retail sales will rise at the slowest pace in six years, according to Washington-based National Retail Federation. Sales are expected to grow 3.5 percent, excluding automobiles, gas stations and restaurants. The federation says consumers are worried about higher gas costs, tightening credit, as well as the slumping housing market and slower job growth.

Harrah’s Entertainment says its $17.1 billion acquisition by private equity buyers is expected to close on January 28th. Upon completion, Harrah’s going-private transaction with affiliates of Texas Pacific Group and Apollo Global Management will be the world’s largest casino buyout. Harrah’s recently extended Chief Executive Gary Loveman’s contract, saying he is likely to stay in those roles after the buyout is complete.

The Texas Lottery sells the most tickets for its $50 scratch-off game in middle-income neighborhoods and not in the affluent areas originally touted as the game’s target. That’s according to an analysis by the San Antonio Express-News and the Houston Chronicle. The study found the $50 game to be most popular in areas with incomes of just more than $30,000 and in those with earnings in the $50,000 and $60,000 range. The lottery sold fewer $50 tickets in the state’s richest and poorest areas. Lottery officials have said they wanted the $50 game to attract customers who didn’t typically play scratch-off games. But critics say the $50 tickets were intended to generate more money from sales to the poor. A lottery official says the agency is studying the possibility of a $100 scratch-off game.

Hybrids, advanced diesels and green alternatives are pushing aside the traditional displays of speed and chrome at this week’s Detroit auto show, a nod to a new fuel-efficient reality for car makers. Automakers, only weeks after Congress approved tougher fuel-efficiency requirements, are broadening their array of cars that get more on a gallon of gasoline, cutting carbon dioxide emissions and using alternative power sources. Most of the vehicles and technologies have been in the pipeline for years, but the podiums at the North American International Auto Show should further signal a shifting direction for the industry after years of pushing more horsepower and speed.

General Motors says it has taken an ownership stake and formed a partnership with Coskata, a renewable energy startup company that plans to produce ethanol from agricultural leftovers and municipal and industrial waste. The announcement was made at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit after the two companies briefed reporters earlier at Coskata’s headquarters in this western Chicago suburb. The extent of GM’s investment and minority stake was not disclosed. The partnership represents a rare foray by a major automaker into the production side of non-fossil fuels as GM and its rivals, under pressure from tougher U.S. fuel efficiency standards, pursue a mix of fuel-efficient vehicles and technologies. GM Chairman and CEO Rick Wagoner said it will take more than 12 years to replace most of the vehicles now on the road with more energy-efficient electrically driven vehicles. But in the meantime, he says ethanol is needed to decrease oil dependence “because there are already millions of flex-fuel vehicles on the road right now.” And he says those vehicles could be running on ethanol if it were more readily available.”

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