$4-a-gallon gas likely here after California refinery fire
A major fire at one of the country's biggest oil refineries that sent scores of people to hospitals with breathing problems will push gas prices above $4 a gallon on the West Coast, analysts said Tuesday.
The Associated Press
RICHMOND, Calif. — A major fire at one of the country's biggest oil refineries that sent scores of people to hospitals with breathing problems will push gas prices above $4 a gallon on the West Coast, analysts said Tuesday.
The fire, which sent plumes of black smoke over the San Francisco Bay Area, erupted Monday evening in the massive Chevron refinery at Richmond, about 10 miles northeast of San Francisco.
It was out early Tuesday, although officials were still conducting a controlled burn.
The fire could increase gas prices in Washington by as much as 30 cents a gallon, said Tim Hamilton, executive director of the Automotive United Trades Organization, a nonprofit that represents gas-station owners.
That would push Washington's gas prices over $4 per gallon.
"This is not good news for the price at the pump," Hamilton said.
Hamilton said the impact on prices will be more clear in a couple of days, after the damage to the refinery is assessed. Based on pictures and video of the fire, Hamilton said, "I wouldn't be a bit surprised for that refinery to be down for at least 60 days."
The West Coast is particularly vulnerable to spikes in gasoline prices because it's not well-connected to the refineries along the Gulf Coast, where most of the country's refining capacity is located, analysts say.
Most of Western Washington's gasoline supply is produced by the state's five refineries; the BP Cherry Point refinery at Blaine is the third largest on the West Coast. But if the Richmond refinery is seriously damaged, some of Washington's refineries could switch to producing gas for California's specific requirements, lowering supply here and raising prices.
"If the price goes high in California then our refineries will start supplying there because that's where they can make a profit," said Mark Anderson, senior energy analyst for the state Department of Commerce.
The timing of the shutdown is also troublesome because refineries are starting to slow down summer-gas production and are ramping up the winter blend, Hamilton said.
Chevron's Richmond refinery is particularly big and important to the market, said Tom Kloza, chief oil analyst at Oil Price Information Service. It produces about 150,000 barrels of gasoline a day — 16 percent of the West Coast's daily gasoline consumption of 963,000 barrels, according to Kloza.
The fire began around 6:15 p.m. Monday, about two hours after a vapor leak of hydrocarbons similar to diesel, said Heather Kulp, a Chevron spokeswoman.
"At approximately 6:30 p.m., the volume increased and personnel evacuated the area," she said at a news conference Tuesday. "The hydrocarbon vapor then ignited and a fire occurred."
Kulp said there were no explosions, and refinery staff initiated an emergency response immediately. The cause is under investigation.
Smoke and flames could be seen for miles.
"Investigators have notified us that Chevron's emergency response was excellent," said Erika Monterroza, a spokeswoman for California's Division of Occupational Safety and Health, or Cal/OSHA. "Everyone was evacuated, and Chevron set up an exclusion zone to keep people out of the area."
Doctors Medical Center in San Pablo, a town near the refinery in Richmond, said 350 people sought help complaining of eye irritation and breathing problems. The hospital said most of the patients were released after being seen.
Kaiser's Richmond Medical Center said it had assessed and treated more than 200 people with respiratory concerns in its emergency department. No patients were admitted to the facility, said Jessie Mangaliman, a spokesman for Kaiser Permanente.
Daniela Rodriguez, 23, told the Contra Costa Times that she heard a "big boom," and about an hour passed before she received an automated call from Contra Costa County to remain indoors.
"I was feeling kind of nauseous and lightheaded" from the smell, she told the newspaper.
The blaze in the refinery's No. 4 Crude Unit was contained in about five hours, Chevron said in a statement.
Three employees suffered minor injuries and were treated at the scene, according to Kulp.
Randy Sawyer, chief environmental and hazardous materials officer for the county's health-services agency, said any kind of smoke can be toxic but added: "In this smoke, there can also be all kind of byproducts that can be toxic."
The agency had four teams of inspectors testing air quality, Sawyer said.
Trisha Asuncion, a hazardous-materials specialist with the county, told the San Francisco Chronicle that no hazardous compounds had been detected in the air.
County health officials used automated calls to warn residents of Richmond, San Pablo and the unincorporated community of North Richmond to stay inside, turn off heaters, air conditioners and fans, and cover cracks around doors with tape or damp towels. The order was lifted later Monday night.
A fire at the refinery in January 2007 injured two workers and shut down the refinery for most of that year's first earnings quarter.
Material from staff reporter Connor Radnovich and Seattle Times archives is included in this report.