Microsoft released Wednesday a broadly available test version of its latest Web browser, Internet Explorer 8, that includes a tool to cover...

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Internet

Microsoft released Wednesday a broadly available test version of its latest Web browser, Internet Explorer 8, that includes a tool to cover one’s tracks across the Web.

Microsoft is adding several features to the so-called beta 2 test release of IE8, which is available in English, German, Simplified Chinese and Japanese, and can be downloaded free by anyone at www.microsoft.com/ie8. A finished version of the browser is due by January, two years after the launch of IE7.

IE8 includes new navigation features, tools to gather bits of content from around the Web and privacy enhancements for users that have caused concern among advertisers and Web publishers.

Energy

Hearing ends on PSE proposal

The Washington Utilities and Transportation Commission concluded a three-day hearing Wednesday on the proposed takeover of Puget Sound Energy by an international consortium.

The commissioners, who have the last word on the sale of the state’s largest utility, questioned proponents and critics of the $7.8 billion deal to determine whether it could harm ratepayers. They will look at the effect the deal might have on rate stability, service reliability and customer-service standards, said UTC spokeswoman Marilyn Meehan.

They will also look at the “financial and managerial fitness” of the new owners, she said.

A decision is expected in October.

The UTC staff and several organizations representing customers earlier backed the deal after some concessions by the investor consortium. But the state consumer advocate still argues the deal could weaken the utility’s financial standing.

Shipping

Todd to continue Navy carrier work

Todd Pacific Shipyards will continue overhauling the Navy’s nuclear-powered Nimitz class aircraft carriers based in Puget Sound through 2013. The deal is likely to be worth tens of millions of dollars.

Todd held two previous five-year non-nuclear maintenance and repair contracts dating from 1999.

General Counsel Mike Marsh says the value of the latest contract will depend on what the Navy wants. He says work under the previous contracts averaged one major carrier overhaul a year at $25 million to $30 million. That meant jobs for 300 to 400 people at shipyards in Bremerton, Everett and Seattle.

Marsh says the next scheduled major overhaul will be on the USS Lincoln in April. The last was on the USS Stennis early this year.

Wood products

Plum Creek forms joint venture

Plum Creek Timber, the owner of 8 million acres of U.S. forestlands, will form a joint venture with Campbell Group to manage timber production on about 454,000 acres in six southern U.S. states.

Plum Creek will contribute timberlands valued at $783 million, and an investment fund sponsored by Portland-based Campbell Group will contribute the same amount in cash, Seattle-based Plum Creek said Wednesday.

Plum Creek Chief Executive Officer Rick Holley has said he is seeking to take advantage of historically high prices for U.S. timberland that weren’t fully reflected in the company’s share price.

“The formation of this joint venture allows Plum Creek to immediately capture substantially all of the value of these timberlands and to maintain an ongoing interest in their continuing cash flow and potential for growth,” Holley said in the statement.

Nation and World

Software

Oracle names Jeff Epstein CFO

Oracle, the world’s second-biggest software maker, appointed Jeff Epstein as chief financial officer.

Epstein, 52, will report to President Safra Catz, Oracle said Wednesday. He will start Sept. 8. Catz has held the positions of president and finance chief since November 2005, when Greg Maffei — a former Microsoft CFO — quit as CFO after less than five months with Oracle.

Epstein was executive vice president and CFO of Oberon Media, a closely held provider of Internet-game technology, according to Oracle’s statement. Oracle’s first fiscal quarter of 2009 closes this week.

The company ranks behind Microsoft in worldwide software sales.

Energy

Storm causes oil prices to rise

Oil prices climbed for a third day Wednesday as fears deepened that Tropical Storm Gustav could enter the Gulf of Mexico as a powerful hurricane and disrupt oil and natural-gas production.

On its current trajectory, Gustav could also damage fuel refineries along the vulnerable Gulf Coast and push gasoline prices higher at the pump in time for Labor Day weekend.

Light, sweet crude for October delivery rose $1.88 to settle at $118.15 a barrel on the New York Mercantile Exchange after earlier spiking as high as $119.63.

Regulation

SEC proposes accounting standard

Federal regulators on Wednesday proposed a plan to allow public companies to begin using international accounting standards for reporting financial results in two years, and may require them to do so starting in 2014.

The push by the Securities and Exchange Commission toward acceptance of a single, global accounting standard has raised objections from some investor advocates and key lawmakers. Supporters of the change say it makes sense in an era of increasingly globalized financial markets and would help lure foreign companies to U.S. markets.

Energy

ConocoPhillips to sell gas stations

ConocoPhillips will sell the remainder of its gas stations in the United States, the company said Wednesday, though Conoco, Phillips 66, and 76 will continue to operate under those familiar signs.

The 600 or so stations are being sold to Pacific Convenience & Fuel, a subsidiary of PetroSun Fuel.

The deal is “in the ballpark” of $800 million, said Sam Hirbod, chairman and chief executive of PetroSun and Pacific Convenience.

Compiled from Seattle Times business staff, Bloomberg News and The Associated Press