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ExxonMobil Torrance refinery investigated for effect on spiking California gas prices

October 12, 2012 12:00:00 AM PDT
Eyewitness News exclusive investigation: What caused a record spike in gas prices in the first week of October?

A key factor in Southern California's gas shortage and spiraling costs was the four day shutdown of the ExxonMobil refinery in Torrance, which reported an "unplanned" event on October 1.

Air quality regulators are investigating the circumstances of the shutdown and whether the plant could have prevented the release of polluting gases as it struggled to get the refinery back under control. Southern California Edison (SCE), which provides power to the refinery, has launched a separate probe into the disruption.

Beginning on October 1, the incident caused volatile gases to be sent to the flares, the stacks that burn them off before they are trapped inside the refinery, which caused an explosion. The polluting smoke was visible for miles.

The South Coast Air Quality Management District (AQMD) says Exxon instantly filed a breakdown report and told the AQMD that they exceeded an emissions threshold for reporting flaring.

Now, nearly two weeks after the refinery incident, there is no agreement as to the precise source of the monumental malfunction.

Exxon released a statement blaming the utility saying it was "...a Southern California Edison (SCE) power supply interruption caused by its La Fresa substation, the main power feed for the refinery."

But SCE says the only electricity incident that morning was a "flickering light-type condition," according to Steve Conroy, a Southern California Edison spokesman.

Conroy describes it like a hiccup -- lasting less than a second according to residential customers in the area. He says there was no outage at the substation.

"An outage just means you've lost service. Your power goes off. We're not aware of that happening in the community to other customers," said Conroy. "How that condition affected the refinery is not known to us at this point in time."

The question now: Could Exxon have avoided the trouble, along with high gas prices it helped trigger, with some sort of surge protector or back up supply? The refinery says it will not comment on operations.

AQMD says it will fine the company if it learns operator error is to blame for the foul-ups.

"Could Exxon have avoided this or not? If they could have avoided it, a violation is possible," said AQMD spokesman Sam Atwood.

Plant problems persisted through the week. Residents reported a nuisance smell of sulfur. But when AQMD visited the plant, they found a more serious odor: heavy gases that may have leaked from a tank.

AQMD says its investigation could take a couple of weeks.

The average price for a gallon of gas went from $4.16 on the day of the shutdown to $4.67 a week later.

The trouble at the Torrance refinery followed an August fire at the Richmond refinery and pipeline that was closed down in the Bay Area.


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