Explosion debilitates Southern California oil refinery, could reverberate through region

Energy Associated Press

An explosion and fire tore through part of a Southern California oil refinery, shattering both a four-story structure and the peace of people whose nearby homes shook from the blast.

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Wednesday's blast occurred in a recently installed processing facility, Fire Department spokesman Steve Deuel said. Four contractors suffered minor injuries.

It could takes weeks to learn just how debilitating the accident will prove to the operations of the Exxon Mobil Corp. facility and how far it will reverberate into the surrounding region and its economy, though experts say a surge in local gas prices is likely.

And it could take even longer to pinpoint a cause as the state begins an investigation that may last six months.

Residents within a mile or two reported feeling a sharp jolt that they initially thought was an earthquake.

"The whole building shook. We couldn't figure out what it was, but we stepped outside the door and the flames were shooting up from the refinery," said Brittney Davis, whose office is about a block away. "I could feel the heat from the flame."

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The refinery about 20 miles south of downtown Los Angeles covers 750 acres, employs over a thousand people and processes an average of 155,000 barrels of crude oil per day. It produces 1.8 billion gallons of gasoline per year, which accounts for about 8.3 percent of the state's total refining capacity.

Gas prices in California had been inching up even before the blast.

Allison Mac, West Coast petroleum analyst for gasbuddy.com, said the accident could contribute to an immediate spike of 7 to 15 cents per gallon, but the effects are likely to remain limited to Southern California.

There are refineries in the region that produce nearly twice as much, so it should not cause a major dent in supply, Mac said. "It's not like we were at 100 and now we're at zero," she said.

Tom Kloza, chief oil analyst at the Oil Price Information Service, agreed.

"You're not going to see another gasoline apocalypse" like after the 2012 Chevron refinery fire in Richmond, California, that helped send gas prices over $4 a gallon, he said.

Students at 13 nearby schools were kept indoors, said Tammy Khan of the Torrance Unified School District. The South Coast Air Quality Management District issued a smoke advisory for areas surrounding the refinery, and it dispatched inspectors to the facility with air sampling equipment.

Exxon Mobil said no harmful emissions were detected by its air-quality monitors on the refinery fence line.

Company spokesman Todd Spitler only said other parts of the facility continue to operate.

The state Division of Occupational Safety and Health is leading the investigation. Cal-OSHA inspectors shut down a fluid catalytic cracking unit — a device used in refining oil — where the accident was thought to have occurred, said Erika Monterroza, a spokeswoman for the California Department of Industrial Relations.

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Associated Press writers John Antczak, Christopher Weber and Alicia Chang in Los Angeles contributed to this report.