An explosion Wednesday morning at the Exxon Mobil Corp. refinery in Torrance is compounding concerns that limited oil refining capacity in California could push up fuel prices.
Fire and police officials said a "second-alarm fire explosion" occurred at the Torrance facility and closed Del Amo Boulevard between Maple Avenue and Crenshaw Boulevard. On social media, local residents shared stories and photos of ash falling from the sky.
Torrance Fire Capt. Steve Deuel said the incident may have been caused by refinery workers activating a flare system to deal with a petroleum product leak. Area schools chose to err on the side of caution and shelter in place, according to the Torrance Unified School District.
In a statement, Exxon said "an incident" occurred at approximately 8:50 a.m. and that refinery emergency response crews responded. All workers have been accounted for; four were taken to Long Beach Medical Center with minor injuries, the company said.
Refinery employees and the Torrance Fire Department are running air monitoring tests in the area but have yet to detect harmful emissions, the company said. Exxon promised to conduct "a thorough investigation" of the event.
"Our top priority is the safety and health of our employees and neighbors," the company said in its statement, apologizing for any inconvenience to nearby residents.
Citing a shutdown earlier this month at Tesoro Corp.'s refinery in the Bay Area, consumer activists are concerned that interrupted refining activity could lead to pain at the pump for Californians.
Santa Monica-based group Consumer Watchdog said Wednesday morning, hours before the explosion, that the Torrance refinery had gone offline to deal with a purported mechanical problem. The group said its information was from news reports and that it had not independently verified the shutdown.
Exxon spokeswoman Gesuina Paras said in an 8 a.m. email that the refinery "has already been operating, it continues to do so; it is not shut down."
"As a matter of practice, Exxon Mobil does not discuss the status of individual units, details of day-to-day operations, run rates, or timelines of maintenance activities," she said in an earlier statement. "Exxon Mobil expects to meet all contractual commitments at this time."
The company did not respond to questions about the morning explosion.
Earlier this month, Tesoro Corp. idled all of its processing units at its Golden Eagle plant in Martinez. The refinery is one of nine nationwide being targeted by a strike orchestrated by the United Steel Workers union.
Half of the facility was already down for planned maintenance when the contract with the union expired at the beginning of the month. Tesoro said it decided that the "safest operating position at this time" was to shut down the rest.
Together, the Torrance and Martinez refineries account for 16.5% of the state's total refining capacity, according to Consumer Watchdog.
The group's consumer advocate, Liza Tucker, in a letter to politicians, including Gov. Jerry Brown and Atty. Gen. Kamala Harris, voiced suspicions that the oil companies shut down the refineries in an attempt to manipulate prices.
Tucker urged officials to send independent investigators to both facilities to probe the reasons behind the shutdowns.
"Unfortunately, California refineries have a history of trying to manipulate gas prices by restricting supply," she wrote.
Later, Tucker said the group wants air and toxics regulators to go to the Torrance plant to investigate the explosion. Fallout from oil combustion can contain carcinogenic compounds and can cause reproductive issues, she said.
Exxon's facility sits on 750 acres, employs 650 workers and 550 contractors and processes an average of 155,000 barrels of crude oil a day. Tesoro's facility sprawls over 2,200 acres. It's 650 workers can process 166,000 barrels of crude daily.
Gasoline prices, Tucker said, are rising faster in California than in the rest of the country. The average price of a gallon of regular gas was $2.26 nationwide on Tuesday, up 8.8% from a month earlier. In California, a gallon now costs $2.80, up 11% over the same period.
"Gas prices are now going to jump 10 cents overnight and then another 10 cents," Tucker said.
Refineries often slow or stop processing in the early months of the year as they readjust their equipment to switch from producing winter gasoline blends to summer varieties.
Spot gasoline prices are up 12.5 cents on the gallon as of 11:45 a.m. after earlier rising just 3 cents, according to a GasBuddy blog post.
The trading community "clearly believes that the loss of substantial gasoline manufacturing will have an impact," GasBuddy petroleum analyst Allison Mac said in an email.
But, she said, "sometimes these events can be spectacular with limited impact." Gas prices in California will likely continue their "mini-spike" into the spring, but Mac said she isn't predicting per-gallon prices above $3.50, as was par for the course between 2011 add 2014.