Friday June 23rd, 2006

Judge says some Halliburton lawsuit filings will stay private to avoid endangering U.S. troops...Anadarko buying Kerr-McGee and Western Gas Resources in deals worth more than $21 billion...Six Flags may sell or close Splashtown...

A judge today ruled Halliburton can avoid public release of sensitive documents in a lawsuit filed on behalf of truckers hurt or killed in Iraq. The federal suit filed last year in Houston involves the 2004 attack on a fuel convoy with military escorts and truckers employed by KBR. KBR is a unit of the Houston-based Halliburton. The drivers were providing support services to U.S. troops--including fuel delivery. Court documents say the attack left six drivers dead and others hurt. The suit says Halliburton and KBR "knew and intended'' that the decoy convoy would be attacked. Halliburton, KBR and other defendants deny the allegations. The judge says some lawsuit filings will be publicly available, but he'll favor keeping anything out of the public eye if its release could endanger U.S. troops or civilians.


The Woodlands-based Anadarko says it has deals to buy Kerr-McGee and Western Gas Resources in separate, all-cash transactions worth a total of more than $21 billion. The deals also include another $2.2 billion dollars worth of debt. Anadarko is valuing Kerr-McGee at $70.50 a share. Oklahoma City-based Kerr-McGee says its board has accepted the deal, subject to approval of shareholders and regulators. It is seen closing by the end of the third quarter. Western Gas Resources is valued at $61 a share in the purchase. Denver-based Western Gas Resources says its board has also approved the deal, also seen being completed in the coming quarter.


Executives from Shell Oil, ConocoPhillips, Exxon Mobil and Chevron told a House panel this week they are open for talks about the terms of offshore deepwater leases signed in 1998 and 1999. The government now says the leases failed to require the payment of royalties when oil and natural gas prices reached certain levels. The current agreements allow producers to avoid paying upward of $10 billion in federal royalties. But Kerr-McGee has filed suit claiming the price triggers are illegal.


Chemical plants and refineries in Harris County have regularly violated a new hourly air pollution limit since it came into effect on April 1st, according to the Galveston-Houston Association for Smog Prevention. The group says industrial facilities reported at least four violations in the first two months, and a review of records shows there may have been as many as 18. The new rule was established by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality to prevent the rapid formation of ozone smog, limiting the emissions of some chemicals to 1,200 pounds per hour.


Theme park owner Six Flags says it could sell or even close six of its 30 properties across North America. Among them is Six Flags Splashtown in Houston. The revelation is among several made overnight. The Oklahoma City-based company said it may fail to meet certain bank credit agreements, and that reaching its previous financial forecast will be extremely difficult. It's citing lower park attendance and rising costs, but says those who are coming to the parks are spending more. President and CEO Mark Shapiro says the attendance drop was expected because the company is no longer deeply discounting season passes. It has been targeting families as consumers, rather than teenagers. Six Flags already closed Astroworld in Houston last year. Other parks being examined for possible changes include Six Flags Darien Lake outside Buffalo, New York, Six Flags Waterworld in Concord, California, Six Flags Elitch Gardens in Denver, Wild Waves and Enchanted Village outside Seattle, and Six Flags Magic Mountain and Hurricane Harbor near Los Angeles. The company says it can't predict for certain whether any transactions will occur. It could sell the properties outright or dismantle the parks and sell the land for its real estate value. Six Flags also owns and operates Six Flags over Texas and Six Flags Hurricane Harbor in Arlington and Six Flags Fiesta Texas in San Antonio.


Texas motorists are getting a little relief from rising retail gasoline prices this week. The weekly AAA Texas gas price survey released today finds the average price of regular, self-serve gasoline at Texas pumps fell four cents per gallon this week to $2.78. The national average fell five cents per gallon to $2.85. Auto club spokeswoman Rose Rougeau says pump prices could fall further if crude oil prices remain below $70 a barrel. The most expensive average pump prices are in the Galveston-Texas City area at $2.90 per gallon--down three cents from last week. The cheapest gas is in Corpus Christi, where they fell almost 13 cents to $2.53 per gallon. Houston's average is down 4.1 cents to $2.88 per gallon.


The Secretaries of Energy and Agriculture believe ethanol has a strong future as an automotive fuel. Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman says production of ethanol is being increased. He says the total should go from about four billion gallons produced in 2005 to six billion by the end of this year. Secretary of Agriculture Mike Johanns says capacity for ethanol production is being ramped up with new bio-fuel plants being built and existing facilities being expanded. He says he believes that the domestic ethanol industry will be able to meet the growing demand and that consumers will become ethanol users in big numbers when they learn about its benefits. They also announced that their departments are sponsoring a renewable energy conference in St. Louis this October.


Soaring oil prices are boosting global interest in nuclear power. Hitachi says it and General Electric have been tapped to build two nuclear reactors outside Houston, for NRG Energy. The $5.2 billion project is likely to help the Japanese electronics and power plant manufacturer compete better against its rivals. Japanese electronics maker Toshiba recently purchased Westinghouse Electric in an attempt to become the world's top nuclear power company. Proponents have been trying to improve the negative image of nuclear power created by accidents such as the partial meltdown of the Three Mile Island nuclear plant in 1979.


Sugar Land Regional Airport has a new $30 million, 20,000 square-foot terminal, according to the Houston Business Journal. The new terminal includes rental car services from Hertz and Enterprise, an executive lounge and three meeting rooms. The airport services more then 10,000 aircraft. Since 1998, Sugar Land Regional Airport has added more than $50 million in facility upgrades, including an air traffic control tower, improved radar and weather reporting systems and larger apron and taxiway areas.


The Houston Independent School District is holding a job fair on Saturday at HISD's Delmar Field House on Mangum. The district is hiring bus drivers, crossing guards, custodians and other maintenance employees, including school bus mechanics, plumbers and electricians for the 2006 school year. About 90 more bus drivers are needed, and will be trained free of charge. There are about 50 school crossing guard openings. HISD needs about 80 new custodians. Job fairs will also be held July 8th at HISD's Barnett Field House on Fairway and on July 22nd at HISD's Butler Field House on South Main.


Kinder Morgan Energy Partners begins construction this summer on a new crude oil tank farm in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada near their Trans Mountain Pipeline storage facility, according to the Houston Business Journal. Nine tanks will be built by a Canadian subsidiary of CB&I, based in The Woodlands, by the third quarter of 2007.


The new Goya Foods facility in west Houston has been opened on Brittmoore Road, as the distribution hub for Goya's nectars, rice, several varieties of beans and other Latin foods. The plant employs 100 people. Goya has been packaging dry beans and distributed food from a Westpark Drive facility for 15 years.


The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs will locate a new Community Based Outpatient Clinic in Conroe. Senate Armed Service Committee member Senator John Cornyn of Texas said he received the word from VA Secretary Jim Nicholson. It's part of a 25 clinic expansion in 17 states. VA operates nine major medical centers, 41 outpatient clinics, nine nursing homes and 12 vet centers in Texas.


Governor Rick Perry says $19.5 million in grants will help Houston and Harris County with Hurricane Katrina recovery. The federal money is meant to support public safety efforts, such as hiring more employees, paying overtime and providing investigative and communication tools. Katrina hit the Gulf Coast last August, sending several hundred thousand Louisiana evacuees to Texas. Hurricane Rita slammed southeast Texas just weeks later. Houston will receive $18 million. Harris County gets $1.5 million. The grants are part of the Edward Byrne Memorial Justice Assistance Grant Program. The funds are distributed by the Governor's Criminal Justice Division.


The Austin City Council has approved size restrictions on homes in an effort to prevent new homes from looming over their neighbors. The council gave final approval to rules that limit single-family homes and duplexes in 48 neighborhoods closest to downtown. New homes are limited to a maximum height of 32 feet. Their square footage is limited to 2500 square feet or 40 percent of the lot size, whichever is greater. The homes must also fit within an envelope dictated by heights and angles, which is meant to place taller homes away from their neighbors. Critics of the rules have argued that they're too restrictive and will discourage building. The City Council also approved a design board that will handle appeals for people who want to build a home that exceeds the size limits.


Aluminum producing giant Alcoa says some 9,000 of its unionized workers have approved a new four-year labor agreement. The vote averts a strike at 15 of its plants. The company will record a charge of four cents per share in the second quarter related to the contract and preparations Alcoa took in the event of a strike. Under the agreement, workers represented by the United Steelworkers will receive annual wage increases but will have to begin paying health care premiums, among other items. The union workers represent about 20 percent of the Pittsburgh-based company's U.S. employees, and about seven percent of Alcoa's global work force of 129,000. The new contract covers workers at plants in Texas Arkansas, Indiana, Iowa, Kentucky, New York, North Carolina, Virginia, Tennessee and Washington.


Starting today, AT&T will require Internet customers to agree that it owns their account information and can share it with government or law-enforcement agencies. San Antonio-based AT&T has about seven million Internet subscribers. Spokesman Michael Coe says the spirit of the privacy policy and the practices haven't changed. But privacy advocates note that AT&T is claiming to own customer records--and forcing customers to go along. Pam Dixon with the World Privacy Forum calls that a significant change and "very disappointing'' as a consumer. AT&T is fighting a lawsuit filed by a privacy group that accuses the company of helping anti-terrorism officials monitor networks without court-approved warrants.


Treasury Department officials say the government gained access to international banking records as part of a secret anti-terror program. Treasury officials say since 9-11, they've used broad subpoenas to collect the financial records from an international banking cooperative known as Swift. The White House and Treasury Department issued statements about the secret subpoenas after the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and the Los Angeles Times posted stories about the program on their Web sites. The program was reportedly run by the CIA and overseen by the Treasury Department. U.S. counterterrorism analysts combed Swift's massive data base looking for financial transactions by suspected terrorists.


The government says orders to U.S. factories for big-ticket manufactured items eased slightly in May, because of reported weakness in demand for commercial aircraft. The Commerce Department says durable goods orders fell three-tenths of one percent. That's after an even larger drop of 4.7 percent in the previous month. Both months saw declines in orders for commercial aircraft, an extremely volatile category that enjoyed large gains at the beginning of the year. It is the first time that total orders registered back-to-back declines in two years.


American consumers are in a dour mood these days. America's Research Group founder and CEO Britt Beemer says his surveys show that 27 percent of consumers plan to cut back on spending because of the pressure they're feeling from credit card bills. Just 16 percent said that a year ago. Beemer tells a Florida retail group that only 28 percent of shoppers feel "really confident'' today, compared with 36 percent two months ago and 54 percent a year ago. He says those sentiments could be bad news for retailers. According to Beemer, there could be a decline of ten-to-16 percent in shopping during the upcoming Fourth of July holiday.


Flexibility tops the list of qualities deemed important by baby boomers and early retirees in determining their "ideal job'' in retirement. A survey by retirementjobs.com, an Internet job information site, finds that the ability to work part time, or a week here-and-there, was followed by stability, as opposed to job hopping. According to the online survey of more than 400 job seekers age 50 and over, other things older workers find attractive include the ability to provide a useful service and cash compensation. On the other hand, entrepreneurship, which many experts believe will be a motivating force for retirees, was rated important by fewer than a-third of those asked.


Construction has begun on the Promenade Shops at Shadow Creek in Pearland, at the southwest corner of Highway 288 and Beltway 8. The center will be anchored by a Bass Pro Shops, and will include a movie theater, specialty grocery store, bookstore and specialty fashion retailers.


Heavy-duty truck manufacturer Oshkosh Truck Corporation said today it's buying a unit of Austin-based medical device maker Healthtronics for about $140 million. The Harvey, Illinois-based AK Specialty Vehicles unit makes mobile Homeland Security, medical and broadcast vehicles. The purchase will position the Oshkosh, Wisconsin-based buyer to further expand into new truck markets, including the medical and military sectors. The new lines will especially complement Oshkosh's growing Pierce line, which makes Homeland Security vehicles. The deal is expected to take place next month.


The head of Pier One Imports told shareholders that the furniture retailer could be profitable again as early as the third quarter. Chairman Marvin Girouard cited changes in the Fort Worth-based company's merchandise to help Pier One compete with the high-end specialty retailers. Girouard says recent rollouts of seasonal catalogs will pay off. Pier One is trying to emerge from a three-year slump that features net losses in the last five quarters and declines in same-store sales 33 out of the last 40 months. The company in May hired J.P. Morgan Chase to assist with strategic alternatives to boost shareholder value. Pier One is fresh off a first-quarter loss that nearly doubled from one year ago because of weak customer traffic.


Bio photo of Ed Mayberry

Ed Mayberry

Local Anchor, All Things Considered

Ed Mayberry has worked in radio since 1971, with many of those years spent on the rock 'n' roll disc jockey side of the business...