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Monday AM August 11th, 2008

Judge dismisses challenges to wind farm projects in Kenedy County…Houston's utility bills named as highest in nation…Pilots complain airline bosses force them to fly uncomfortably low on fuel…


A federal judge dismissed a conservation group’s lawsuit challenging two wind farm projects under construction in Kenedy County, clearing the way for their completion by year’s end. The Coastal Habitat Alliance had sought to stop PPM Energy, now Iberdrola Renewables, and Texas Gulf Wind, a subsidiary of Babcock & Brown Renewable Holdings, from building wind turbines in the coastal South Texas county. The group argued the companies had not sufficiently studied the impact on wetlands, habitat, endangered species and migratory birds. U.S. District Judge Lee Yeakal in Austin informed the parties last Monday–two weeks before the trial was set to start–that he would dismiss the case. The judge had accelerated the trial schedule to accommodate both parties, so trial preparations were well underway when word of the dismissal arrived.

Houston has the nation’s highest home utility bills for the month of July, according to a national survey by WhiteFence, as reported in the Houston Business Journal. The average bill in Houston was $475.14—a $60 increase over June. Houston residents paid more than double than those in Portland, Oregon, which averaged $216.22 per household. The national average for July was at $293.54.

Oil and gas activity contributed to a 7.1 per cent increase in per-capita income in the Houston area, according to the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis. This region ranks 22nd for per-capita personal income among 363 metropolitan areas surveyed, with an annual income of $46,235. But on average, personal income nationally grew 6.2 per cent in 2007—down from 6.8 per cent in 2006.

The Houston-Galveston Area Council and the East Harris County Manufacturers Association are partnering for Commute Solutions Month. The manufacturers’ group will donate $1 for every person (up to $10,000) who commits to try a commute alternative during August. All those who pledge will be entered into a drawing at the end of the month for a $1,000 gas card. The money will be used for clean air education and awareness programs. Pledges can be made online. Alternative transportation can be carpooling, riding a bus or train, bundling trips or even two-wheeling on bikes or motorcycles.

The Greater Houston Partnership has passed resolutions supporting the expansion of the Houston Food Bank, the increase of motor vehicle registration fees and the adoption of airport land use regulations around the three Houston airports. The GHP says the food bank must be able to store at least 300 per cent more food to meet the region’s demand. Motor vehicle fees should be increased by 105 per cent, according to the partnership, to restore their values to the inflation-adjusted level of funding provided in 1984. And the group says the Houston Airport System needs help in accommodating rapid passenger and cargo growth.

Pilots are complaining that their airline bosses are forcing them to fly uncomfortably low on fuel. They say safety for passengers and crew could be compromised. Spare fuel beyond the minimum required by the FAA is often added to airliners to allow for weather or airport delays. But with fuel prices now their biggest cost, airlines are aggressively enforcing new policies designed to reduce consumption. There is a confidential reporting system, which lets airline crews report safety problems without fear their names will be disclosed. It has heard from pilots who had to tell air traffic control that they needed to immediately get their planes on the ground, because they were carrying less fuel. American and US Airways blame the complaints on heated labor negotiations. Both are in contract talks with the complaining unions. The airlines call it a contract issue, not a safety issue.

American Airlines will unveil two planes today featuring a pink ribbon running the length of the fuselage in honor of its partnership with Susan G. Komen for the Cure. The partnership includes a $7.5 million pledge from the airline to research a rare form of breast cancer. The two planes will be the first of eight featuring the pink ribbon. In press releases, both groups announced American’s pledge will fund research of inflammatory breast cancer–an aggressive and frequently fatal form of the disease–at the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston. Komen said that kind of breast cancer represents two to five percent of all breast cancer cases. Komen said the grant will fund a team of patient advocates, oncologists, pathologists and scientists working to improve the ability to diagnose and treat the disease. Fort Worth-based American, the world’s largest airline, has pledged to raise $1 million annually for eight years to fund the research project. The rest of the money raised will fund health and community programs. American says most of the funds will be raised at its annual American Airlines celebrity golf and tennis weekend.

It could soon cost you more miles to earn a free trip on American Airlines. American said it will raise fees and mileage requirements for upgrades and free trips. The changes will take effect October 1st. An upgrade from economy coach on a domestic flight will cost $50, plus the 15,000 miles that was already required. Miles and fees for upgrades were also raised on international flights. The airline told members of its AAdvantage frequent-flier program of the changes in an e-mail message. Its moves follow changes at Delta Air Line’s mileage program last week. Delta said it would give frequent fliers a guaranteed ability to redeem miles for a free trip but sometimes at the cost of many more miles. Airlines are raising fares and a variety of fees to cover higher jet fuel costs, but most U.S. carriers are still losing money.

Hawaii’s two main interisland airlines are reporting increases in summer passengers. Hawaiian and Go! airlines say they’ve seen more passengers since the shutdown of Aloha Airlines in March. Go! had a 2.2 percent increase in passengers last month, compared to July a year ago. Hawaiian Airlines says it took on more of the passenger load in June in the smaller island air market. Hawaiian reports a 13.4 percent increase in June compared to the previous year. Go!’s load climbed 34 percent in June. Both airlines have raised their prices for short island voyages since the market shrank. They blame “dramatically higher fuel prices.”

The Swiss bank UBS has reached a 19.4 billion agreement to buy back bonds in the biggest settlement yet over claims that banks misled investors to buy risky auction-rate securities. The Massachusetts Secretary of State’s Office confirms that the agreement was reached between UBS Financial Services and the Federal Securities and Exchange Commission and regulators in several states, including Massachusetts and New York. The deal was first disclosed in the Boston Globe.

The deal is the latest, and by far the largest, in a string of settlements involving state officials. Bank of America has revealed that it’s received subpoenas and requests for information from various state and federal regulators regarding its sale of auction-rate securities. In a filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission, the bank says subsidiaries Banc of America Investment Services and Banc of America Securities are cooperating fully with the requests. Auction-rate securities are bonds whose interest rates are set at periodic auctions, on the basis of bids submitted. The market collapsed in February amid turmoil in the credit markets. Regulators have been investigating some banks’ involvement in the sale of the securities. They claim banks marketed the investments as safe even when they knew of liquidity risks. Earlier, Citigroup said it reached a settlement with the New York attorney general and regulators to repurchase $7 billion in auction-rate securities and pay $100 million in fines. And Merrill Lynch agreed to buy back an estimated $12 billion in auction-rate securities from its clients over a one-year period beginning January 15th.

Attorneys say General Motors and the Deloitte & Touche accounting firm have agreed to pay a $303 million settlement to investors. The deal is to settle a lawsuit surrounding allegations that the automaker misstated its finances. Attorneys with plaintiffs Deka Investment and Deka International say GM has agreed to pay $277 million, while Deloitte & Touche will pay $26 million. The settlement is pending approval from the presiding judge in the case. The case stems from claims that GM issued false and misleading statements about its finances to investors going back to 2000. A GM spokeswoman says the company is pleased with the settlement and looks forward to the lawsuit being resolved.

Marathon Oil has given the Detroit Science Center a $2.4 million grant toward the creation of a new Future Fuels Gallery at the museum. The three-story gallery will open in 2010.

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