Every time an oil refinery goes offline in this state, our gas prices skyrocket.

Observers for years have suspected that sometimes the facilities are taken out of the game so that big oil concerns can get a boost in price. In the case of the Feb. 18 explosion at ExxonMobil's Torrance refinery, which the Auto Club of Southern California says has helped to boost pump prices by nearly a dollar a gallon since then, almost no one is suggesting a profit motive or ill intentions. 

But … Los Angeles–area U.S. representatives Ted Lieu and Maxine Waters sent a letter last week to the chairman of the U.S. Chemical Safety Board (CSB), Rafael Moure-Eraso, asking for an investigation anyway.

Over the weekend, Moure-Eraso said yes.

The congress members are concerned because it was the third major blast at the refinery since 1988, it was the third refinery explosion in the United States this year, the industry has an accident rate as high as four times that of its European counterpart, and one insurer has said oil and gas industry losses are the worst of any industrial sector.

The duo wants to know if the Torrance blast, which triggered a 1.7 reading on the earthquake Richter scale, injured four workers and sent metal oxides and silica floating into the neighborhood, is part of a “pattern” at American refiners.

Credit: File photo by Neil Kremer/Flickr

Credit: File photo by Neil Kremer/Flickr

The Lieu-Waters letter calls the blast “the latest in a trend of major incidents at petroleum refineries in recent years.”

It's not clear if the explosion took the ExxonMobile facility even partially offline. Officials at the oil giant said unaffected operations would continue as normal, and a spokesman didn't answer our question about whether or not gas was still being produced.

California is served almost exclusively by 14 in-state refineries that make special-blend gas mandated by law.

Our unique fuel and lack of gas importation means that one or two idle refineries can quickly squeeze supply and boost pump prices. A refinery in Martinez, California, has been offline as a result of a labor dispute.

Moure-Eraso of the CSB said that a team of four to five investigators would be “mobilized” and sent to the facility today:

We have been concerned about this incident since it first occurred due to the reports of injuries, extensive property damage and the release of catalyst material into the surrounding community.

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