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Exxon seeks to use old, less-clean equipment at crippled Torrance refinery

Exxon seeks to use old, less-clean equipment at crippled Torrance refinery
Exxon Mobil's proposal to use old, more-polluting equipment at its Torrance refinery includes steps to help mitigate the higher emissions. (Christina House / For The Times)

Exxon Mobil Corp. has asked air quality officials to allow it to increase refining operations at its Torrance facility — a move that comes as Los Angeles-area gasoline prices jumped nearly 6 cents because of refinery woes.

Exxon Mobil's plan includes use of an old pollution-control system to temporarily replace one damaged in a February explosion. The old equipment is expected to release pollutants at levels that will violate rules of the South Coast Air Quality Management District, but the proposal includes steps to help mitigate the emissions.

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The company plans to modify five cooling towers and shut down a boiler to reduce overall emissions from the refinery. In addition, Exxon Mobil will operate the refinery at a capacity of about 80% to 85% to help control emissions.

The proposal will go before the air quality agency's board during a public hearing Sept. 2. If the proposal is approved, Exxon Mobil could increase its operations in Torrance by mid- to late September.

"We believe their mitigations are sufficient," said Mohsen Nazemi, deputy executive officer of the agency.

Since the February explosion, the Torrance refinery has operated at less than 20%. It usually provides 10% of the state's refining capacity and 20% of the capacity in Southern California.

Separately on Thursday, the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health, or Cal/OSHA, issued 19 citations against Exxon Mobil for the February explosion and fined the company $566,600.

Eighteen of the citations were classified as serious because of a realistic possibility of worker death or serious injury. Six of these serious violations were also classified as willful because investigators found that Exxon Mobil didn't take action to eliminate known hazardous conditions at the refinery and intentionally failed to comply with state safety standards.

Exxon Mobil has 15 working days to appeal the citations to the Occupational Safety and Health Appeals Board.

"Petroleum refineries have the responsibility to keep workers safe and to also protect nearby communities and the environment," said Christine Baker, director of the Department of Industrial Relations, of which Cal/OSHA is a part. "This investigation revealed severe lapses in Exxon's safety protocols."

Oil refineries also have been criticized by consumer advocates for high gasoline prices and hefty profits. Consumer Watchdog and billionaire Tom Steyer have called on state lawmakers to set requirements for inventory levels that prevent shortages such as has troubled Exxon Mobil at the Torrance facility. In addition, they want increased disclosure about profits to ensure the oil companies are not gouging consumers.

Gasoline prices typically run higher in California than in the rest of the nation because of taxes, fees and the special blend the state requires to protect the environment. But this summer, refinery troubles in the state had an outsized effect on Southern California.

Gordon Schremp, senior fuels analyst for the California Energy Commission, said any increased level of production at the Torrance refinery will help ease gasoline prices. Two shipments in the short term are expected to arrive next week.

Refinery problems have contributed to high gasoline prices in the L.A. region that have reached as much as 50 cents a gallon more than the rest of the state and $1.50 more than the nation.

Gasoline prices, which had begun falling, jumped 5.8 cents in Los Angeles on average from Wednesday to Thursday because of problems at certain refineries, including the ongoing production limitations at the Exxon Mobil plant in Torrance.

"In this market," Schremp said, "with Exxon Mobil Torrance still being down, the whole market is much more constrained."

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The average price of a gallon of regular gasoline in the L.A. area Thursday was $3.86, compared with $3.59 statewide, according to the Automobile Club of Southern California.

"We are told by industry analysts to expect a lot of volatility in local gas prices through the fall as Southern California refineries continue to rely on imports to supply enough gasoline to the area," spokesman Jeffrey Spring said. "It appears the latest spike was caused by a similar situation to the spike in July, when at least two foreign tankers headed for Southern California redirected to other foreign ports."

Twitter: @ivanlpenn

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