RICHMOND — A major fire at one of the country's biggest oil refineries that sent scores of people to hospitals with breathing problems will push gas prices above $4 a gallon on the West Coast, analysts said Tuesday.
The fire, which sent plumes of black smoke over the San Francisco Bay area, erupted Monday evening in the massive Chevron refinery about 10 miles northeast of San Francisco.
It was out early Tuesday, although officials were still conducting a controlled burn.
The West Coast is particularly vulnerable to spikes in gasoline prices because it's not well-connected to the refineries along the Gulf Coast, where most of the country's refining capacity is located, analysts say.
Chevron's refinery is particularly big and important to the market, said Tom Kloza, chief oil analyst at Oil Price Information Service.
It produces about 150,000 barrels of gasoline a day — 16 percent of the West Coast's daily gasoline consumption of 963,000 barrels, according to Kloza.
With inventories of gasoline in the region already low compared with the rest of the country, pump prices in California and elsewhere on the West Coast will soon average more than $4 per gallon, Kloza said.
"It's a very key refinery," he said.
In Santa Rosa, a gallon of regular gasoline averaged $3.84 on Monday, according to the AAA Fuel Gauge Report. With a month to go before Labor Day, the price was up 12 cents over the past month, and 2 cents higher than a year ago.
Motorists caught a break for the summer driving season when gas fell below $4 a gallon in Santa Rosa in mid-June. At the time, gas had exceeded $4 a gallon since late February, the California Energy Commission said.
Chevron spokesman Lloyd Avram said he did not have an update on when the refinery could be restarted and declined to comment on what kind of impact the shutdown might have on the gasoline market.
Price Futures Group oil analyst Phil Flynn said pictures of the fire suggested it would not be back on line soon.
Flynn predicted motorists would see higher prices at the pump almost immediately.
"I'm hearing five to 10 cents, but I think it's probably going to be double that," he said.
The fire began around 6:15 p.m. Monday, about two hours after a vapor leak of hydrocarbons similar to diesel, said Heather Kulp, a Chevron spokeswoman.
"At approximately 6:30 p.m., the volume increased and personnel evacuated the area," she said at a news conference Tuesday. "The hydrocarbon vapor then ignited and a fire occurred."
Kulp said there were no explosions, and staff at the refinery initiated an emergency response immediately after the fire started. The cause is under investigation.
Smoke and flames from the fire could be seen for miles.
State workplace safety investigators had cordoned off the entire crude unit on Tuesday, and no one was being allowed to enter without approval from the state, said Erika Monterroza, a spokeswoman for California's Division of Occupational Safety and Health, or Cal/OSHA.