By Mark Glover and Kevin Yamamura
mglover@sacbee.com
Published: Tuesday, Oct. 9, 2012 – 12:00 am | Page 1A
Last Modified: Tuesday, Oct. 9, 2012 – 7:38 am

With gas prices hovering near $5 a gallon in California, the state’s politicians are simultaneously pressing for relief and questioning whether the oil industry is manipulating the market.

The California Air Resources Board said Monday that it had granted Gov. Jerry Brown’s request over the weekend to allow refineries to switch early to making cheaper winter-grade fuel. The idea is to boost the supply of gasoline, but analysts said it’s unclear how quickly the change will bring prices down, or by how much.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein on Monday questioned whether the record prices are truly the result of a shortage. She fired off a letter to the Federal Trade Commission seeking a probe into possible market manipulation, citing past price increases she attributed to “malicious and manipulative trading activity.”

The FTC did not respond directly, saying it doesn’t comment publicly on investigations.

Late Monday, Sen. Barbara Boxer weighed in, asking the U.S. Department of Justice’s Oil and Gas Price Fraud Working Group to investigate.

Monday marked the third straight day of all-time high prices in California. National gas price tracker GasBuddy.com put the average price of a gallon of gas in California at $4.66, virtually unchanged from Sunday, and it noted that the Sacramento-area average of $4.53 was up a whopping 45.8 cents from just one week ago. AAA put the local average price at $4.55 and the California average at $4.67 on Monday.

That compares to a nationwide average gasoline price of $3.81 a gallon.

Energy analysts blame the high prices on a perfect storm of supply disruptions that began Aug. 6 with a fire at the Chevron refinery in Richmond, a key piece of the state’s petroleum infrastructure.

The latest spike followed more refinery troubles, including an Oct. 1 power outage at ExxonMobil’s refinery in Torrance. That refinery has since resumed normal operations.

That same day, Chevron’s Kettleman-Los Medanos pipeline, which delivers crude to Bay Area refiners, was shut down after elevated levels of organic chloride were detected in the oil.

In-state supplies were further limited by maintenance work at Phillips 66 facilities in the Bay Area and Southern California.

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