Friday AM August 3rd, 2007

Russians stake flag under North Pole ice to bolster claims to oil and mineral wealth...NRG Energy to expand Cedar Bayou power plant near Baytown...Karachi, Pakistan's Chamber of Commerce and Industries visits Houston to promote business investments...

Two Russian mini-subs have staked a flag on the ocean floor beneath the North Pole's ice. The mission is part of a quest to bolster Russia's legal claims to much of the Arctic's oil and mineral wealth. The Itar-Tass news agency reports one of the deep-diving subs has returned safely to the surface. Quoting officials from the Federation of Polar Explorers, the news agency says the second is still making its way back from the 2.5-mile dive. The voyage beneath the five-foot-thick polar ice is considered dangerous. Itar-Tass says the first sub's crew spent about 40 minutes searching for an ice-free area in which it could surface. The mission also has scientific goals, including studying the climate, geology and biology of the polar region.


NRG Energy is teaming with a joint venture to expand its Cedar Bayou power plant near Baytown, according to the Houston Chronicle. The EnergyCo joint venture includes private equity firm Cascade Investments, controlled by Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates and New Mexico-based utility PNM Resources. They plan to build and operate the 550-megawatt gas-fired power plant, joining the facility's three older 750-megawatt gas-fired units. One of those units has been idle for several years, and will be retired. NRG paid $5.8 billion in November 2005 for the Cedar Bayou plant and seven others around Houston, including a 44 percent stake in the South Texas Project nuclear plant in Matagorda County.


Houston-based Energy Steel Products has been acquired for $25 million, according to the Houston Business Journal. The purchase was made by management and private equity firms Lone Star New Markets and Lone Star Growth Capital. Energy Steel Products is a subsidiary of Canada's Samuel Manu-Tech.


Houston-based Silver Eagle Distributors is now Anheuser-Busch's largest U.S. distributor, following the acquisition of San Antonio-based BudCo. The addition of BudCo gives Silver Eagle close to 1,200 employees in 16 Texas counties, as well as in Houston and San Antonio.


Ten representatives of Karachi, Pakistan's Chamber of Commerce and Industries are in Houston promoting American business investments in Pakistan. Houston is one of four U.S. stops for the Karachi business group. They are also lobbying for better access to U.S. markets. In addition, the group says it wants to develop business opportunities for Pakistan's women entrepreneurs. The visit includes meetings with local business and government leaders, including U.S. Congresswoman Sheila Jackson-Lee, Sugar Land Mayor David Wallace and Houston City Council member M.J. Khan.


Hybrid vehicles could sell at record levels in the U.S. this year. J.D. Power and Associates estimates that 187,000 hybrids were sold through June--accounting for more than two percent of all new vehicle sales. And even while the company is forecasting a sales slowdown in the second half of the year, it expects 345,000 hybrids will be sold in 2007. That's a 35 percent increase from last year, when drivers snapped up a record 256,000 hybrids. The Toyota Prius continues to be the best-selling model, accounting for just more than half of all hybrids sold.


Power3 Medical Products of The Woodlands says its six-patient study of a blood serum test for early detection of breast cancer had highly accurate results, according to the Houston Business Journal. The BC-SeraPro would be the first blood test for cancer. Power3 is also evaluating an early detection blood serum test for Parkinson's disease called NuroPro in a 500-patient study.


The number of Americans filing first-time claims for unemployment benefits rose slightly last week. Even so, the number indicates the job market is holding steady. The Labor Department says new applications for jobless benefits rose by a seasonally adjusted 4,000 to 307,000. Analysts were looking for a bigger increase. New claims are down from where they stood a year ago. The government is scheduled to release the monthly unemployment report Friday morning. It is expected to remain around 4.5 percent. The Houston area unemployment rate is 4.7 percent, which is 1.1 percent lower than June of last year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.


Demand for manufactured goods rose in June, but not by as much as analysts had been expecting. The Commerce Department reports factory orders were up six-tenths percent, rebounding from the five-tenths percent decline in May. Economists were calling for a one-percent gain. The advance was powered by higher demand for transportation goods--airplanes and the like. When that category is excluded, however, overall factory orders were down 1.5 percent.


A drop in treasury yields pushed long-term mortgage rates slightly lower this week. Freddie Mac says the rate on the 30-year fixed-rate mortgage averaged 6.68 percent--down one basis point from last week. The 15-year loan, popular in refinancing, came in at 6.32 percent compared with 6.37 percent a week ago. Freddie Mac Vice President and Chief Economist Frank Nothaft says the buying of treasury securities by investors seeking safety from the subprime fallout pushed yields lower, allowing mortgage rates to drift downward a bit.


Interest rates are being held steady by central bankers across Europe. Both the European Central Bank and the Bank of England have opted to leave rates where they are. The ECB held its benchmark rate at four percent, as inflation in the 13 nations that use the euro remains below the ECB's warning level. ECB President Jean-Claude said the bank is "strongly vigilant'' on inflation and other economic conditions--a phrase seen by most analysts as a signal of a future rate hike. Most analysts think a rate hike is coming at the bank's meeting in September. Earlier, the Bank of England left its key rate unchanged at 5.77 percent following last month's quarter-point increase. In the U.S., the Federal Reserve is scheduled to meet next Tuesday. It is expected to leave rates unchanged.


A Minnesota company has paid a $7,500 fine for safety violations leading to a fatal crane accident earlier this year at a Hereford construction site. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration proposed about $10,000 in fines last June against Fagen Incorporated. The Granite Falls, Minnesota, company was accused of crane safety violations at the White Energy Ethanol Refinery. OSHA records show Fagen paid a reduced fine of $7,500 and took corrective actions after the February 22nd accident. Federal investigators spent two days inspecting the site after the accident. Thirty-nine-year-old Laray Lee Tidmore of Idabel, Oklahoma, died in the accident and 40-year-old co-worker James Lytle of Oak Grove, Louisiana, was hurt.


Houston-based U.S. Oncology is relocating its headquarters to a new building in The Woodlands in early 2009. The firm is consolidating its Greenspoint-area offices to an eight-story structure to be built on Woodloch Forest Drive.


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...