Thursday AM May 8th

Offshore Technology Conference concludes at Reliant Park…Worker productivity and consumer borrowing both rise…U.S. home sales fall one percent in March to new low…

The Offshore Technology Conference at Reliant Park is a chance for governments to whip up oil company interest in their backyards. Malcolm Wicks is the UK Minister of State for Energy and a member of Parliament. He’s been meeting with Houston oil executives.

“We’re meeting lot of companies here, yeah, partly as a trade ambassador, because I’m, you know, deliberately banging the drum for British business excellence, not least here in the energy sector. But I’m also taking the opportunity to discuss these wider issues about energy security and climate change with some key that I’m meeting. I just meet the Norwegian energy minister and we shared ambition about carbon capture and storage, and we want to move forward together on that.” Ed: “What do you hope to have left behind with your trip here?” “I hope just re-emphasizing the point that many, many companies and many nations now understand that, you know, Britain is a good place to do business. And in terms of energy, we are actually a center of excellence. Since the mid-60s, we’ve developed a great deal of expertise about the exploitation of oil and gas in our own backyard—the North Sea. You will now find British companies all around the world and you’ll often find skilled British workers all around the World. So, you know, Britain—excellent place for energy business. I think that’s what I want to emphasize.”

Wick has been participating in a number of functions at OTC.

“My prime purpose in coming to this fantastic event—the OTC in Houston—is to promote the excellence of the British energy business. We happen to be good at energy, rather like the good folks of Texas and Houston are good at energy. That’s largely because of the huge reserves of oil and gas in our own North Sea. We’ve been blessed with much oil and gas offshore in Britain, and that’s led to the development of some really major companies, but also some smaller companies, and many good British companies are exhibiting here telling the world—literally the world, because the international market—what British companies have to offer, and I’m here to back them.”

OTC concludes today with more technical sessions on alternative energy, LNG and improving energy policy through better dialogue between consumers and the energy industry.

Worker productivity rose by a better-than-expected amount in the first three months of the year. The Labor Department reports that productivity, the amount of output per hour of work, increased at an annual rate of 2.2 percent in the first quarter. That was slightly higher than the 1.5 percent increase which had been expected. In a sign that inflation could be easing, labor cost pressures slowed a bit. Unit labor costs rose at an annual rate of 2.2 percent, down from a 2.8 percent rise in the final three months of last year.

Consumer borrowing rose in March at the fastest pace in four months, more than double the increase of the previous month. The Federal Reserve reported Wednesday that consumers increased their borrowing at an annual rate of 7.2 percent, compared with a 3.1 percent rate of increase in February. The gain was much larger than economists had been expecting and reflected strong borrowing on credit cards and also in the category that includes auto loans.

A trade group says pending U.S. home sales fell one percent to a new low in March. It’s a sign that the housing market has continued to struggle as the spring selling season gets under way. The National Association of Realtors says pending sales for existing homes fell to 83 from a downwardly revised February reading of 83.8, the index’s previous low. The index stood at 103.9 in March 2007. A reading of 100 is equal to the average level of sales activity in 2001, when the index started. Falling home prices and a tight credit environment have kept the housing market under pressure. The trade group predicts existing home sales activity and the economy will pick up in the second half of the year as larger home loans backed by the Federal Housing Administration become more widely available. The FHA recently raised the mortgage limits for loans it guarantees.

The Energy Department says gasoline inventories rose unexpectedly last week, while crude oil stockpiles gained more than expected. Inventories of the motor fuel rose by 800,000 barrels–7.6 percent above year-ago levels. Crude oil inventories rose by 5.7 million barrels–3.6 percent below year-ago levels. Inventories of distillate fuel, which include diesel and heating oil, fell by 100,000 barrels. Demand for gasoline over the previous month was about one-tenth of a percent higher than a year earlier.

U.S. Transportation Department data shows nearly 30 percent of the nation’s domestic flights were late or canceled in March. It was the worst March on record and second-worst opening quarter for a year since comparable data began being collected in 1995. Fort Worth-based American Airlines had the worst March with only 62 percent of its flights arriving on time. Still, the March results for the overall industry were slightly better than February’s, when more than 31 percent of the nation’s domestic flights arrived late, were canceled or diverted. Higher fuel prices have been staggering. And in March, more than 41 percent of late flights were delayed by weather, up from about 38 percent in the year-ago period.

Southwest Airlines is adding five nonstop flights and three destinations from Denver. The Dallas-based low-cost carrier says it will add nonstop flights to: Sacramento, California; Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood, Florida; and New Orleans. Southwest says it will add one daily nonstop to Phoenix, for a total of seven. The airline now has 61 daily nonstops from Denver, up from 13 when it returned to the city in January of 2006. Its latest expansion comes less than a month after Denver-based Frontier Airlines sought Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection amid higher fuel prices.

ExpressJet Airlines is cutting more flights from Tulsa International Airport and officials say the rising cost of fuel is the reason. The Houston-based airline is down from ten round-trip flights a day to six cities a year ago to one round-trip flight a day to four cities now. ExpressJet has eliminated flights to San Antonio and Austin, while keeping flights to San Diego, Sacramento and Ontario, California; and Albuquerque, New Mexico. ExpressJet spokeswoman Kristy Nicholas says high fuel prices are forcing the airline to decide quickly if there are enough passengers to support continued flights to various cities.

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