International Business Briefs: Green taxi float, ethanol plant, oil recruitment slump, Enron, Shell probe

A Canadian company that is pioneering a "green" London taxi is planning to float on the Alternative Investment Market. Azure Dynamics, whose investors include John Gunn, the British financier, has created a new system called "smart" power.This combines a traditional fuel engine and an electric generator. Every time the brakes are used it recharges the battery and extends the vehicle's range. Azure has been working closely with Manganese Bronze, the maker of black cabs, and it intends to try out the system in two taxis this summer. It aims to cut the fuel bill by up to a third and also reduce emissions.

Husky Energy said this week it plans to spend CA$90 million to CA$95 million to build Western Canada's biggest ethanol plant, next to its heavy oil upgrader in Lloydminster, Saskatchewan. The plant is one of seven grain-based fuel projects in the works that will boost Canada's total ethanol production fourfold, thanks to an injection of CA$78 million in federal subsidies. The Husky operation is scheduled to be up and running by the end of 2005 and will produce 130 million litres of ethanol a year.

Companies searching for black gold are finding it tougher and tougher to recruit new petroleum engineers. Layoffs, the technology boom and a bad public image have all contributed to a sharp decline in students pursuing energy careers at U.S. universities. And as a large number of engineers approach retirement age, a staffing crunch looms. Petroleum engineers are crucial because they locate new fields and devise ways to pump oil from hard-to-reach places like ocean floors, deserts and the Arctic tundra. With fewer recruits, the average age of engineers is rising, resulting in higher salaries that will jack up production costs.

Former Enron Chief Executive, Jeffrey Skilling, has pleaded not guilty to all charges in Houston's Federal Courthouse this week. Charges ranged from conspiracy to insider trading. He faces up to 325 years in prison and up to US$80 million in fines if found guilty. Prosecutors said the firm was "more crime syndicate than energy company."

The US Securities and Exchange Commission on Thursday launched a probe into why Royal Dutch/Shell, Europe's second largest energy group, had to cut its proved oil and gas reserves by 20%. The decision comes as Shell faces further scrutiny about other mistakes it made in "booking" its oil reserves with the SEC, including underplaying the discovery of its huge Gorgon gas field in Australia.

Global mining giant BHP Billiton got a boost to its profits for the second half of 2003 due to soaring sales in the Chinese economy and a strong rise in commodity prices. Its sales to China in the six months to December 31 were up 175% on the same period a year earlier.




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