Exxon Mobil’s refinery in Torrance currently operates at less than 20% of its capacity after a February explosion. (Reed Saxon / Associated Press)

By Ivan Penn
July 17, 2015

The refinery that has historically produced about a fifth of Southern California’s gasoline has been crippled since a February explosion — and may stay that way for months to come.

The trouble at Exxon Mobil’s refinery in Torrance is a major factor pushing up regional gas prices, which have risen dramatically this month. Restoring the site to full capacity is among the best hopes for bringing prices back down, according to analysts.

The Torrance refinery currently operates at less than 20% of its capacity, said Mohsen Nazemi of the South Coast Air Quality Management District.

Exxon Mobil asked the management district for approval to use an old pollution control unit it replaced in 2008 to temporarily restore full operations of the Torrance refinery, but regulators said the equipment does not capture emissions well enough. Emissions from the older unit would violate state regulations and rules.

Exxon Mobil would need a special exemption to use the old equipment, and the company still must demonstrate it has a plan to offset the effect of the increased emissions.

The old pollution control system, Nazemi said, emits 2 to 6 times more emissions into the air than the newer unit.

“It’s going to have an impact on the local community living down in Torrance,” said Nazemi, the management district’s deputy executive officer for engineering and compliance.

Meanwhile, the ongoing inventory shortage is affecting all Californians who drive. The average gas price in the L.A. area hit a new high for the month on Thursday at $4.30 — about 50 cents above the state average and $1.50 above the rest of the nation. On Friday, the average gas price in the L.A. area dropped a penny.

Angry consumers have been cursing and shaking their fists at gasoline pump prices, which in some areas such as downtown L.A. have exceeded $5.

“The biggest help will be when the Exxon Mobil refinery starts producing gasoline again,” said Gordon Schremp, senior fuels specialist for the California Energy Commission. “We don’t know where that stands at this time. Certainly all of us consumers would like to know.”

Analysts had expected the Exxon Mobil refinery to return to full service in July.

Now experts believe it won’t return to full operations for much longer, not until Exxon Mobil can repair the damage from the explosion and secure regulatory approval.

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